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The juried concerts at the Exchange Dance Festival last year introduced Tulsa to the work of almost two dozen budding choreographers. Some were undergraduates majoring in dance. Some were studying choreography in grad school. Some were professors in dance departments. All of them courageously brought their work to be seen and adjudicated by the festival’s attendees and judges. And some of them have exceptional talent.

Christie Nelson-Sala, photo by Jesse Scroggins

The THRIVE award for “Best of the Fest” last year went to Christie Nelson-Sala, for her work “Narcissus’ Pomegranate.” She’s not a Tulsan, but I’ve decided that her winning the top award at Tulsa’s own choreography festival is enough of a Tulsa connection to give me an excuse to introduce her to you — especially since she’ll be back this year with new work to show. I believe that the more we know about the creative people around us, the more we’ll be able to value the creative work happening in our own backyard, and even within ourselves. As an intro to the intro, here’s Christie’s fantastic choreography reel.

“Narcissus’ Pomegranate” came about after dancer Megan Yankee commissioned Nelson-Sala to create a solo for her. The two met at Texas Woman’s University, where they became fascinated by each other’s movement styles. The piece is the fruit (as it were!) of one of those magical connections between dancer and choreographer, with the latter perfectly capturing the former’s essence and the former perfectly channeling the latter’s articulation of ideas and images.

Nelson-Sala’s interest in mythology — how we tell the story of who we are — is evident in the solo’s title, a reference to the story of Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection, and also to the pomegranate seeds which are the food of the dead in the story of Persephone (whose picking of a narcissus flower initiates her abduction into the underworld, where Hades makes her his wife against her will).

Megan Yankee in “Narcissus’ Pomegranate,” photo by Christie Nelson-Sala

The dance — set to a French spoken-word piece by Dominique Petitgand and a roiling, jangling, oceanic bit of beauty by Colleen — is a masterful study of one creature’s delight in itself, full of languid, lingering moments and delicious, Pan-like play. The most careful placement of one part, then another, with fingers unfolding like a flower, suddenly turns into a febrile collapse, a dark wandering, a question with no answer. A body that was delectably self-contained becomes jagged and disturbingly dissolute: a self not glinting on the surface but drowning in the undertow. Yankee’s dancing touches every minute shift in feeling and intention. She is captured — captivated — captivating. It’s a brilliant work and a brilliant performance.

I asked Nelson-Sala to tell me about her history, her way of working, and her influences. I’m delighted to share her responses with you, and look forward to following her work as she continues to develop as a choreographer.

Christie Nelson-Sala: Well, firstly I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to talk with you about all my endeavors.

Currently I am based in Dallas, TX, which is where I grew up. I moved back to Dallas about a year ago to be near family while I had my first baby, Emma Sophie. Emma has just changed my life in the most amazing way. She has made me to slow down and take a serious look at how I want our future to play out.

I graduated from CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) in May of 2010 with my MFA in Choreography specializing in production. While there I learned from some of the most amazing artists and had some of the best mentors an artist could ask for. I also worked at the RedCat Roy and Edna Disney/ CalArts Theater of Los Angeles where I was able to work with local artists as well as touring artists.

My mentor, Stephan Koplowitz, and the faculty of CalArts proposed I be a part of a pilot program called Feldstärke International. This program would be an environment where students from CalArts Los Angeles, CentQuatre Paris, PACT Zollverein Essen, would come together three times in a one year setting. Each time we traveled to the locations and would work intensively for a little over a week and produce the works we created. Each person had a different métier although it felt like in our program the dancers almost outnumbered. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated doing this program. We all still keep in contact and do work together here and there. We are all hoping that we may connect again as we did before and see how our visions and work have changed.

Prior to CalArts I was with my husband living on a military base. Not the best setting for a person like myself. I loved the solitude because it gave me a chance to look at my life. But at the same time I felt like there was something I needed to be doing. I have always been a multi-tasker and a mover. Which is why my husband had convinced me to apply to CalArts. To this day I am very thankful for that.

I received my BA in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. I am currently teaching courses as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Choreography. TWU prepared me in a different way for my professional life as an artist.

My influences in my work are foremost the people who I set work on or have worked with in the past. In every thing I have created, for the most part, I try and “read” the person to understand their feelings and happenings in their lives. I try to use those ideals with my movement qualities and mesh them together. When I am creating a work that is based on an idea or theme I try to stay away from those feelings I get from people because it starts to get all mooshy with my theme of the work and the way I feel about the performers I might be working with at the time.

Some of the most influential choreographers and artists in my life are Pina Bausch, Mats Ek, Crystal Pite, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, Ohad Naharin, DV8’s Lloyd Newson, Michael Foley, and Larry Keigwin just to name a few. I could actually go on and on about all of these artists’ work and it could get nauseating because I am just in love with their work. But something that strikes me about all of them is how theatrical and deeply rooted they are. Their sense of the theatre and movement share the same level in one space. The characters are so concrete and driven. I’m just in awe every moment. And they each have given me something that I take with me every time I create work, whether they know it or not. These artists and my mentors and my direct life experiences are the reason I create the work I do.

Thanks to Christie for sharing her thoughts and her compelling work. She’s just one of the many artists who’ll be visiting Exchange August 10-12. To say I’m eager to see what she’s been up to this year would be a very large understatement.