This evening’s performance by Backhausdance at the Laguna Playhouse marks the opening of the anticipated three-day Laguna Dance Festival. It’s even more for choreographer Jennifer Backhaus and her dancers, cheering their 10th anniversary and their first full-evening solo performance.
“It’s a really big deal to be placed on the same festival bill with Hubbard Street and Alonzo King,” she said, citing the two longer established companies that fill out the festival’s program in successive concerts over the next two days.
An adjunct professor of dance at Chapman University at the time, Backhaus founded her company in 2003 to help young dancers progress to the professional level even as the county’s long-established Ballet Pacifica would soon vanish. “It was important to me to create a dance culture in Orange County and to reach the widest audience I could,” she said.
The company currently features 11 dancers including young apprentices deployed as understudies. “Historically I have only taken dancers who have finished college, with occasional exceptions for men who are harder to find,” she explained. Optimally aged around 26 to mid-30s, company dancers earn roughly $10,000 a year and help support themselves with day jobs such as personal training, teaching yoga and food-service, but no one compromises on commitment, she added. “The current challenge is to pay them at least minimum wage for rehearsal time,” she said.
“Jenny and the company have done fantastic work with arts organizations and schools to teach students about the art, the fun and the creativity possible in dance,” said Nancy Dickinson-Lewis, a dance professor at Chapman University and Backhaus’ first choreography teacher.
She praises her former student’s choreography as driven by artistic integrity and accessibility to general audiences.
Current Backhaus dancer Tawny Chapman was at a crossroads in 2005 over whether to seek her fortune in dance meccas like New York or Chicago. She credits the company for keeping her home in Southern California. “The company provided valuable opportunity to pursue a professional career in an area where high caliber professional dance companies are few and far between,” she said.
“This year we are performing ‘Connections,’ one of our first pieces again. But, we’re in much better shape than we were then and what a memorable way to kick off our 10th season in the same festival as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago celebrating their 35th,” Chapman said.
Starting a contemporary dance company in Orange County after Ballet Pacifica disbanded in 2007 may be a leap of faith, but Backhaus also takes strides towards improving its odds of longevity. She puts the company on the road to call on East Coast dance aficionados and draw attention to Orange County. The company previously performed in Laguna with Gallimaufry Performing Arts and at previous Laguna Dance Festival previews on Main Beach, where dancers ignored the sun’s glare and feet-broiling stage, she recalled. “We wanted to make something here and we were not so much intent on being successful as to have impact. Now it looks as if we’re getting there.”
Backhaus, 40, no longer dances. As artistic director, she keeps a close eye on her troupe. “I watch every show from the audience area to get a realistic perspective of how the art is coming across,” she said.
She began dancing as a teen steeped in the rigors of gymnastics. “When I turned 13, my body’s center of gravity changed and I suddenly became fearful during routines,” she recalled. However, she found that many gymnastic routines translated into dance. By her senior year in high school, she had already tried her hand at choreography. Today, she credits such diverse training as helping her understand dancers’ bodies, a requisite for successful choreography. She earned academic dance training from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.
An ability to transfer her passion onto novices and seasoned artists has gained Backhausdance supporters, such as board president John Miller, a business consultant, whose wife Marica Pendjer dances and manages a contemporary dance company.
“What sets Jennifer apart is her incredible energy. For her it’s not just about choreography but growing the art,” he said.