Talk to dancer Miriam Gittens about the trajectory that brought her to Ballet BC, and it’s clear that her entry into New York City’s famed Juilliard School for the arts was a turning point.
The talent had grown up in Fresno, California, training from age three at a school that didn’t just emphasize ballet, but dabbled in jazz, tap, contemporary, African, and hip-hop.
Right after high school she headed to the Big Apple for the opportunity of a lifetime. “Juilliard was a dream that I didn’t necessarily think was possible,” says the affable artist, speaking to the Straight over the phone from the Scotiabank Dance Centre studio, amid warm-ups for morning ballet class. “That definitely was one of the most important and difficult opportunities of my whole life. That’s where I really grew up and learned who I really was.”
It was at the school that Gittens first heard about Ballet BC; she clearly remembers teacher Francisco Martinez (a former dancer with Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza) telling her about artistic director Emily Molnar during a partnering class. “He talked about what an inspiration she is and how powerful she is,” Gittens recalls. “He was talking about her as a dancer and as a leader. And that sent me going into research and looking at as many videos online as possible.”
For the aspiring performer, other highlights at Juilliard included creating a piece with her father, Larry Gittens, a well-known trumpet and piano player. “As a jazz musician, he tends to improvise, so it was interesting to see how we both created material,” she says.
Still, Gittens took a break from dance after graduating from Juilliard, working for a financial adviser in New York City while she contemplated her future. “It was an entirely new and uncomfortable place to be,” she reflects. “A lot of people think that as soon as you graduate you jump into exactly what you want. I had had a long four years at school and needed some time to think and I wanted clarity.”
It took just four months to figure out she needed to dance. Her opening came when Peter Chu, a Juilliard grad who’s performed for Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot and whose Vegas-based company chuthis. has performed here at the Cultch, invited her to join a tour for his acclaimed Paper Cuts in an Empty Bag in early 2017.
“He was my first professional job, so that was a huge moment,” she says. “He’s someone who’s inspired me to be as versatile as possible. And that was even more of a driving force to audition for someplace like Ballet BC.”
Soon after, Gittens auditioned and made it into the Vancouver troupe’s emerging artist program last season. And she’s still marvelling at not just the touring to places like Madrid and Germany she got to do, but the choreographic stars she got to work with over that year.
“I never dreamed I’d be able to do rep by William Forsythe or Crystal Pite,” says Gittens, referring to mounting Enemy in the Figure and Solo Echo. “To see the people they are is even more inspiring. They’re some of the most revered choreographers of our time, and I saw how giving they are.”
This season, her first as a full company member, she’s even more stoked to work with the likes of Aszure Barton, who’ll be bringing her playful and poetic Busk here, and Medhi Walerski, who will be restaging his starkly beautiful spin on Romeo and Juliet.
At the same time, Gittens will be part of a company in the midst of change: this is Molnar’s final season and Gittens is one of several new company members. “There’s a big shift and it’s a very youthful company, so it’s exciting,” she says.
As for Vancouver, she’s embracing the outdoors and the cuisine. “There’s an easygoing California vibe here,” she says, which, of course, makes it feel like home.
The youngest of seven kids, Cristina Bucci was born in Malta and raised in Surrey, and voraciously sought out dance herself.
“I was self-taught, mostly through film or music videos,” she tells the Straight over the phone from Vancouver, from an international dance intensive run by the OURO Collective, where she’s managing and co–artistic director. “I’d always record it on VHS and then slow it down and learn it. So it would mean a lot of self-teaching—predominantly street dance and hip-hop.”
Those forms drew her back again and again, even as she started to pay for studio classes in everything from jazz to hip-hop through summer jobs as a teen. Along the way, she was drawn to world styles like Afro-Cuban and Indo jazz. And then she headed to London, England, to pursue a career in commercial dance.
“It was such a struggle and I ended up seeking out the more underground street dance, where I felt accepted,” she explains.
“I was an introvert and dance was a way for me to communicate; I was from a big family with strict parents, and dance was my voice,” she allows. “I turn into this other person when I teach and dance. [Dancing,] I could be really aggressive as a teen—that’s why I think a lot of teens gravitate toward dance and hip-hop.”
Back in Vancouver, the self-starter has found innovative ways to push street dance and mash it up with other forms. She became assistant director of training company The SOULdiers run out of The Dance Centre, and worked with women and children in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, taking part in numerous outreach programs, such as Kidsafe, Share Dance, and Power of Dance. Then, in 2014, she founded the street-dance-based collective OURO, along with colleagues Maiko Miyauchi, Dean Placzek, Mark Siller, and Rina Pellerin. Each brings different specialties—as diverse as waacking, popping, breaking, and contemporary ballet—together on collectively created projects.
The result has been work that has both reimagined street dance and blazed new trails at festivals and other platforms. There have been appearances at the New Works dance series and the Vancouver International Dance Festival, and a commission by Montreal’s Tentacle Tribe for OURO’s debut at the Dancing on the Edge Festival. “That was something, as a street dancer, I was so interested in: going to Dancing on the Edge,” she says. “It was one of those moments where I could believe I was a part of it.”
She’ll be part of an even bigger platform at this fall’s Dance in Vancouver, the biennial showcase for North American presenters that runs November 20 to 24 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. There, audiences can take in OURO’s new HAKO—a piece that pushes into the realms of technology and installation art. In it, five dancers team up with experiential-design studio Tangible to interact with glaring white LED rods and a giant, bulbous soft sculpture.
When she’s not teaching or creating new dance pieces, Bucci works as a nutritionist, coaching young performers through seminars on how eating right can prolong their careers. “Being Italian, it’s been a big part of my background; my mom makes absolutely amazing Italian cuisine and she was always interested in healthy food,” she explains.
Reflecting, Bucci feels like she may have finally found where she fits into the dance world. “It took me about 15 years to figure it out and get to the point where I am today, where I love this amalgamation of street styles and contemporary ballet,” she says.