Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Meet the Artist: Sonia Dawkins

Choreographer Sonia Dawkins

There weren't any big dance numbers in Seattle Opera's April 2021 production of Flight. However, the story came alive in part thanks to the work of choreographer Sonia Dawkins. Dawkins helped to draw the viewer in and bring out the characters' unique traits through singers’ facial expressions, everyday gestures, and body movements. She also helped to create the love scenes in the opera, composed by Jonathan Dove with libretto by April De Angelis. While the performers had to be socially distanced, Dawkins’ work (coupled with some fancy editing) created an impression of intimacy—to quite a comic effect in one scene!

Based in both Seattle and New York, Dawkins is the founder and artistic director of SD|Prism Dance Theatre. She has served on faculty at Pacific Northwest Ballet (among many other schools, colleges, and institutions), and has performed extensively in the United States and the Caribbean. Audiences may have seen her choreography with Village Theatre, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Nevada Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre School, Seattle Theatre Group (Dance This), Northwest Tap Connection, Seattle Children’s Theater, Broadway Bound, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and more. Dawkins is a member of the Stage Directors and Chorographers Society and The International Dance Council.

Hello, welcome! What was it like making your Seattle Opera debut during a global pandemic?!
I was so honored to be a part of the artistic team, and to have a chance to witness how Seattle Opera has been reinventing its work; so amazing.

Seattle Opera was very proactive with us regarding COVID-19 health and safety. Seeing these talented artists, staff, crew, and creative team come together, all the components working together, was inspiring. The opera singers stepped into another realm of their art through the film medium. I would think a piece such as this Flight might help opera to stretch in exciting new directions, too.

As a choreographer, you obviously come to us from the dance world. What have your experiences been with opera prior to Flight?
While I have a great deal of experience with dance companies, musicals and plays, this was my first time working with an opera company. Sometimes in the theater world, the artists don’t have much in the way of formal dance training. So, part of my job is to create a vocabulary for those individuals, a vocabulary based on movement that feels most natural to them.

From left: Sarah Larsen, Joseph Lattanzi, Joshua Kohl and Karen Vuong.

Tell me more about what your role entailed as a member of the creative team in Flight.

In addition to choreographer, I was also the “Intimacy Director.” Many people are unclear of the role of a choreographer. They immediately think of ballet or modern dance. But a choreographer can be anyone who directs and/or creates movement, movement that could include every day, pedestrian gestures that facilitate the creation of dance.

For example, in Flight you had a cast of 10 in the airport. If you sit and observe at any airport, you see all manners of behavior. People walk, steer children and luggage, eat, converse on the phone, etc. The action is never stagnant, a fact we kept in mind while staging Flight. We wanted to make sure to tell a story that speaks to our shared humanity and our need for connection. I thought that what Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel was pulling out of the artists was amazing. As intimacy director, I was tasked to support his work and the actor’s mannerism, gestures and posture.

Because there wasn't actually formal dance in Flight, your work in this production was often more subtle. And yet, I know you played an important role. Where could we best see your artistic influence in Flight?
You can see my work more explicitly right after the stewardess and steward have just finished a sexual scene, and the rest of the cast is onstage (i.e. the airport lobby). The camera starts cutting from singer to singer in very quick succession, and you see the artists start dancing around, having fun, and fantasizing about going on vacation and all the fun they’re going to be having on holiday.

Brian allowed me to work on the entire opera, and we worked quite collaboratively. Sometimes he wanted the ensemble to have identical gestures, or he wanted to see particular facial expressions, gestures, or eye movements. It was much like being on the set of a classic Hollywood movie set, particularly with the vintage airplanes.

What else have you been up to during the pandemic?

I’ve really taken this time to reflect, pause, and push the reset button.

During this time, I’ve worked on several film-based projects, including a dance with poetry project that I created. I was also asked to choreograph on some of the senior class of students at the Alvin Ailey/Fordham University program. Sadly, the students went through a major interruption in their school year. Eventually, over Zoom, we developed a piece where the dancers performed in their own space, thus developing into a short film for their graduation, 2020.

Additionally, I continue to mentor artists —coaching, advising and doing my best to open up doors for them. Recent commissions include, New York Theatre Ballet, guest choreographer and teacher for Oklahoma Dance Festival plus continue to develop programs for SD|Prism Dance Theatre —
developing a food bank for artists in need, programs for emerging artists to continue their training

Sonia Dawkins is both a choreographer and leading dance educator in Seattle, New York, and working across the United States. 

What’s one of your proudest artistic accomplishments? What’s an artistic goal that you have not yet met?

Well, I would say, to begin with I’m just so grateful for the support of my parents and other members of my family. They believed that education was important. I had the opportunity to attend undergraduate and graduate school. And the support that they provided me means so much. This has been the foundation for me to start SD Prism Dance Theatre, which has grown and evolved every year. Also, I am grateful to the teachers, mentors and artistic friends that have contributed to me developing my art. “God has put many rainbows in my cloud.”

I have a few goals —to create additional work that expresses humanity, love, joy and educates as well. One goal is to create a space to distribute healthy food to struggling artists for them to continue to have a healthy and wholesome life.

In light of this past year—global pandemic, deep polarization, demands for racial justice—what are your hopes for the future of the arts?
One hope that I have is that doors continue to open for People of Color. Not simply because I myself am Black/African American. I want to see doors open for Native Americans, Latino, Asian, and other cultures and communities. I want us to take time to get to know each other’s cultures and to educate ourselves so that we can truly come together and better understand. I think this will positively influence the stories that we tell onstage. I want more collaborations, more sitting down, and really talking time to talk to one another.

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