KT Niehoff is a seminal figure on the Seattle dance scene. She founded Velocity, a center for contemporary dance on Capitol Hill, and Lingo Productions, which presents her wide-ranging repertoire of creative works. Niehoff, who has won many local and national awards, was an Artist in Residence with ACT Theatre’s Central Heating Lab, where she created her latest work, the acclaimed Glimmer in 2010. With Lingo, she has performed throughout the U.S. and at major dance venues around the world, including The Joyce SoHo in New York. Since 2006, Niehoff has been interested in creating productions that let the audience roam through the performance space and mingle with the performers. Niehoff’s newest work, Collision Theory: The Finale, will premiere at On the Boards in April. She been developing the piece for months, engaging hundreds of participants at dinner parties, fashion shows and through pen pal exchanges.
Alice Kaderlan: You’re an incredibly versatile performer - a dancer, actor, singer and director. Did you receive training in all these disciplines?
Actually I got started as a singer at age six with the Colorado Children’s Chorale in Denver, where I grew up. Duane Wolf, the director, was very talented and ambitious, with lofty ideals and very rigorous training. I learned everything from Mr. Wolf: discipline, how to be a soloist. And I loved him.
Your work is so theatrical. Did you receive training in theater also?
I did a smattering of theater in high school but at that point I was completely dedicated to singing. Then I went to NYU [New York University] and studied at the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting, but I discovered acting wasn’t for me and even now I don’t know why I went to school for acting. Basically, I was a choral singer.
What was it like studying with the great Stella Adler?
It was really hard, and she was hard. She sat on a throne and the men had to wear ties, the women skirts. To this day I remember her stopping me while we were rehearsing The Misanthrope. I was starting to put a pillowcase on a pillow and she stopped me almost immediately [because she didn’t like what I was doing]. It wasn’t for me.
So when did you start dancing?
In my last year of college at the old Danspace on Broadway and Houston.
That’s very late to start dancing. How was it for you?
It shattered my world and hit my core in a fantastic way. Dance is so visceral, kinetic and full of emotion, and the music and musicality are so deep. It made a lot of sense to me but I was scared because I didn’t know how to dance, I had no vehicle for my feelings. So right after college, I started taking class every day, sometimes four a day, practicing and feeling the experience of dancing.
It must have been incredibly hard to start dancing at that age, and in New York.
It was tough for lots of reasons. I became depressed because I realized I had been doing the wrong thing [acting not dancing] for all those years, and I was so bad in the midst of really good dancers. I also had to make a radical shift physically which is really hard on the psyche as well as the body. And I had to cut everything else out of my life because I was starting so late and that was really difficult because I’m such a multifaceted person.
So how did you get to Seattle?
Michelle Miller [a dancer friend in New York] and I had auditioned for [Seattle choreographer] Pat Graney in New York while she was doing an East Coast tour, even though we didn’t know who she was or anything about Seattle. But she hired us, so we packed up a Ryder van and drove straight across the country. We arrived on April 2, 1992.
You were so inexperienced. What do you think Pat Graney saw in you?
I was very musical and that’s what she needed. It was also okay with her that I didn’t have a traditional dancer’s body. Her work is very athletic and though I couldn’t have done anything highly technical, I could move even if I wasn’t really a dancer yet.
It must have been tough to move to Seattle, not knowing anyone, especially after being part of the New York dance scene.
Absolutely. Michelle and I were New Yorkers, used to a huge studio with hundreds of dancers coming through every day. When we got here, we did a tour of the Seattle dance studios and afterwards I remember crying and then realizing if we’re going to live here, we’re going to have to build our own community. So we started out by teaching each other every day and trying to recreate our New York life here. We tried to offer our own classes but nobody came so we started teaching at other studios.
When you started choreographing in 1994 your work was essentially dance with music but today it’s very multi-disciplinary, as much theater as anything else. I presume this was a gradual evolution.
Yes. I slowly started bringing in all the elements from my background, including acting and theater. By 2003, I was using a lot of text and creating evening-length pieces and environments but still on a proscenium stage. Then I created Inhabit in 2007 and never looked back.
With Inhabit you moved the performers into the audience. Why the change?
I wanted more connection with audiences and couldn’t feel that on a proscenium. The idea of “we do our thing, you clap, we take a bow” was unsatisfying and I wanted to create much greater proximity with the people who came to our performances. Proximity is so powerful physically, emotionally and psychologically. But it can backfire and I was terrible at it when I started.
Inhabit was like a big dance party with the performers greeting the audience, offering wine and a tour of the space, and guests able to watch from any vantage point. Did you achieve your goal?
Inhabit was a very gentle piece and we were preoccupied with making people comfortable. I wasn’t trying to be provocative and we spent many months practicing dancing right next to each other, looking each other in the eye, touching each other gently. And then the audience came in and we could feel the energy and it was life changing.
Apart from what you get as a performer, what is the effect on the audience when you break down the fourth wall?
They get the chance to have the same experience as we do - to be seen, to get closer to us and themselves, to be more than just a witness. I don’t micromanage the audience; they get to choose their own vantage point, much like the way we see the world. And I think people want to connect with each other.
So how do you define yourself and your work today, especially since you sang in both Inhabit and Glimmer. Is it dance, movement theater or something else?
I am concerned about labels because language is how we explain ourselves but it’s hard to define something until it’s history. Right now, I think of it as dance-dominant theatrical work but it’s becoming more and more musical, which feels so true, like I’m returning to my roots. Sometimes I feel like “What have you been doing all this time?” and it’s so great to be back in my true element.
What inspired you to create Collision Theory, which you’re developing over a long period of time through a number of live events in different settings?
I usually get an idea because of unfinished business from my previous work. For Collision Theory it was the idea of ownership, connecting over time. The last night of Glimmer, this guy came up to me and had explanations for everything that was going on and I realized that was his world, not mine. That led me to the idea of letting people take ownership of a work.
My idea is to get deeper into the work as we do it over time, the way we develop a relationship with a coffee shop that we go to regularly. And it’s very organic. We started with a performance at On the Boards at the NW New Works Festival as a first foray into non-anonymity. We had people write letters and then exchange them. We got 150 letters so we decided to have a reunion at my new space where we hung all the letters.
Then, we did a big fashion-focused night with live music in a distillery and still have more events before the finale that will premiere at On the Boards. My goal is that the OtB piece will feel like a reunion for those who have taken part.
With everything you’ve done – moving to Seattle, starting Velocity, running your own company - what’s next?
I feel like I’m going through a big segue, that it’s time for Lingo to end. There comes a time in everybody’s life when you realize the potential for stagnation and have to take a leave. I really don’t know what’s next but I know I will always be creative.
If you go: Collision Theory, April 18-21 at On the Boards, 100 W. Roy Street. Tickets are $20 at http://www.ontheboards.org/performances/collision-theory-finale or 206.217.9888.