On an icy Sunday evening in mid-November, a buzzing crowd streamed into the Fine Arts Building at the University of Alaska Anchorage and settled into the seats around the Main Stage. Lights dimmed. Music filled the room. A cast of dancers swayed across the stage.
This was the final night of Dance in Performance, an ensemble performance directed by artist Katie O’Loughlin, a UAA graduate and adjunct faculty member in the school’s department of theatre and dance. The show featured nine pieces created by a selection of diverse and mostly-local choreographers; the result was a dazzling, 90-minute production filled with unexpected movement and light.
It took many people to make it happen: dancers, designers, directors and stage crew. To O’Loughlin, shared experience is one of the great things about dance—something that drew her to it from the beginning, and something she continues to expand to this day.
“It’s community,” she said. “And it’s beautiful.”
A lifelong Alaskan and near-lifelong dancer, O’Loughlin found the community early. Raised in Wasilla, she began dancing at age 10. By high school, she was taking up to 10 classes a week, studying different styles; dancing four-to-five days a week, up to four hours a day. Her three older sisters danced, too. It was a family-and-friends-type thing from the start.
“Everything I needed was kind of the studio,” she said. “Dance was a total escape for me.”
At the studio where she studied, she was supported by encouraging teachers. After high school graduation, she eventually entered the theater and dance program at UAA. At 18, she said, she dreamed of directing shows.
Fast-forward four years. For her senior honors project and thesis, she choreographed a 45-minute show, “Middle Ground.” She also served as technical director and created the sound design and interactive photographic light projections. Pulling it off involved a village, including a cast of 12 performers and two additional lighting designers.
Her artistic community cultivated with and through dance was still growing.
It expanded exponentially with a trip to Cuba later that year, O’Loughlin said. With the encouragement of teachers, she’d applied for a grant-funded research project to study the relationship between the country’s arts community and its politics, culture, economy and environment, and the common threads of resilience in both Cuba and Alaska. She was looking for connections.
She realized that the 1959 Cuba revolution happened the same year Alaska became a state, and her curiosity grew from there. “For me, it was this tiny little anchor point,” she said.
In Havana, she found new anchor points after connecting with the dance company MICOMPAÑIA. The way the company built music, how they worked together, how they approached music and dance, was transformative, she said.
After her trip to Cuba, more students followed through the same grant-funded research program. O’Loughlin said she felt grateful for all the people who supported her and made the trip possible and helped pave the way, for all the students who followed and the community that grew from it.
“It was really fun to be a part of that — to just be a part of something that’s bigger than me,” she said.
She spent the next year teaching, and when the opportunity came to make another grant-funded trip to Cuba, she was ready. Stepping out of college had been hard. There were questions: What does this life look like outside of an educational realm? Do I deserve this? Am I good at this?
Alaska’s artistic community helped her find the answers, she said.
Connected with MICOMPAÑIA during her second trip to the Caribbean country, O’Loughlin took classes, watched rehearsals and soaked up the ways the Cuban company worked and moved together.
“It changed me,” she said. “I was able to grasp these new tools and new ways of approaching things.”
She found a new sense of unity, she said — a feeling for how people work together and the relationships between them and the music. She learned lessons about connection and creativity, she said. It gave her a new level of artistic confidence.
“I think that’s one of the things I’ve learned as an artist — to just let things come out as they come out, and trust that,” O’Loughlin said. “Trust that your work is true to you.”
Everyone views life differently, O’Loughlin said, and while every performance might mean different things to different people, she hopes her work has a communal effect. “I really hope it just touches people.”
She decided she wanted to return to school, earn an MFA, eventually become a professor and keep working with students. She said she loved the community she’d found there.
Inside the Main Stage theater at the UAA Fine Arts Building, the crowd returned to their seats after the brief intermission. The second half of the final showing of this year’s Dance in Performance would begin with a performance of O’Loughlin’s own choreographed piece, “GlassIdeas.”
Dancers in gold shimmered onto the stage. Sharp lights cut through the darkness. Underneath, the music fluttered.
The piece, created over the course of the semester, was inspired by the idea of refraction, O’Loughlin said. What happens when we settle into a moment, analyze it, allow ourselves to see it for what it is, appreciate the details?
On stage, the dancers slipped through beams of light and the audience sat rapt.