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Laguna Beach

 Volume 11, Issue 90  | November 8, 2019


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Laguna Dance Festival founder Jodie Gates shares the rigor underlying her fairytale life

Story by MARRIE STONE

If Jodie Gates were to write her life’s story, it might sound a lot like a modern-day fairytale. A little girl, born in Sacramento in the 1960s, dreams of one day becoming a professional ballerina. While performing onstage at age 15, the iconic choreographer Robert Joffrey sits silent in the audience, assessing the young dancer. When the curtain falls, Joffrey offers the girl the opportunity to come to New York and stud – on scholarship – with The Joffrey Ballet. But she is too young. Her mother won’t allow it. 

Joffrey returns the following year and, once again, encourages the girl to come to New York, an offer she cannot now refuse. She advances from student to apprentice in a mere three weeks and begins her professional dance career at age 16.

The story is sweet, the ending happy. The young girl dances all over the world – on nearly every continent – for over 25 years. When at last she retires her slippers, she continues doing what she loves – choreographing, directing, and teaching. Her opportunities broaden. Her successes pile up.

But behind every real life fairytale lies a path paved with incredible determination and unimaginable discipline. There are no short cuts. That’s the true story.

Laguna Dance closeup

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Courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

Jodie Gates – Founder of the Laguna Beach Dance Festival, Professor at USC, Choreographer, Director, and former principal ballerina for the Joffrey Ballet

In the beginning

Jodie’s story began the way most little girls’ stories begin – a distant dream of one day becoming a prima ballerina. “Genders were less blurred in those days,” Jodie says. “Young girls dreamed about being ballerinas, as young boys thought about becoming firemen. Now it’s okay for a woman to think she might someday be a CEO, and I love that.”

For Jodie, ballet began at the age of 7. “It was about falling in love with what it meant to move to music,” Jodie says. Her sister, 11 years her senior, also studied ballet and became a role model. Her mother and grandfather supported her, taking Jodie to countless classes and watching her thrive. “It was wonderful for my whole family,” she says. “My mother supported me without even really knowing what it meant.” 

Jodie’s mother passed away in June, and it’s given Jodie time to look back on what her unwavering support and dedication meant to Jodie’s career. “I’ve been able to reflect upon all those moments – all the successes and challenges – and what that meant to my mother and myself. I’m very grateful for what she gave me.”

Her mother even moved with Jodie, in part to watch over her during those early years, and in part to fall in love with an art of her own and become active in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. 

The elusive role of Juliet

That fateful day on the Sacramento stage sealed Jodie’s successful future. Her career with The Joffrey Ballet would span 15 years and cross several continents. In 1995, she would become the principal dancer for The Pennsylvania Ballet and, in 1999, she would move to Frankfurt where she taught, staged, and produced ballets around the world for William Forsythe’s Ballet. But before all that, before the wide acclaim and rock star status, there was still a young woman uncertain about the future.

Laguna Dance master class

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Courtesy of USC Kaufman School of Dance

Jodie teaching class at USC Kaufman School of Dance

Alongside Jodie’s childhood dream of becoming a prima ballerina ran her desire to dance the role of Juliet in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. “It’s such a lovely story,” Jodie says. “The score is stunning and incredibly complicated.” Aside from this, the role simply spoke to her. “Every young woman wants to fall in love,” she says.

Jodie was so enchanted by the piece that, at 10 years old, she performed the entire three-act ballet for her mother in their living room, playing all the parts. “The score is long,” Jodie says. “So you can imagine the patience on my mother’s part.” 

Fast-forward 15 years and Jodie is now dancing in The Joffrey Ballet when the Prokofiev score comes into the repertoire. Jodie sees an opportunity for her dream to be realized. There are three casts, meaning three Romeos and three Juliets, enabling the ballet to be performed night-after-night, as well as on tour. Alas, Jodie is not called to learn the part and is, instead, given a much smaller role. 

Knowing there was no chance of seeing the stage as Juliet, Jodie nonetheless persevered. The dance itself meant more than the performance. “I asked the director of the Joffrey if I could understudy the role of Juliet,” Jodie recalls. “I promised I wouldn’t get in the way.” Jodie danced silent and alone in the backdrop, content enough in her private role as Juliet.

Two months before opening night, a director flew in from Europe to determine who, among the three couples, would dance the part on opening night. As he studied the couples, he noticed Jodie rehearsing alone in the background. He called her forward. He wanted to see her dance, after lunch, with a partner she hadn’t practiced with before. Her passion and dedication to the role surpassed every other obstacle, and Jodie came to be chosen to dance the part of Juliet at Lincoln Center on opening night. 

“I share that story with my students in an effort to tell them I’ve been there,” Jodie says. “I made that happen out of sheer will. I just wanted it so much, and I caught this man’s eye. That role was very meaningful. If something means that much to you, even if you’re not cast, even if you’re the understudy, learning a part in the back you don’t think you’re ever going to perform – do it. Learn it.”

How the President’s son became her prince

Shortly after Jodie’s arrival at The Joffrey, she was paired with a partner who set a high bar for fame and recognition. Ronald Prescott Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan, became Jodie’s Romeo. “He was a beautiful dancer and a wonderful partner,” she says. “Kind, articulate, and smart.” They performed the duet on tour in Hong Kong, followed by an entourage of secret service agents and bodyguards. “We were treated like kings and queens,” Jodie says. “I just assumed that’s how all travel was.” The Reagans weren’t the only first couple who saw her perform. Jodie also danced for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. 

The Joffrey Ballet was at its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, and its dancers held rock star status. Opportunities began to pile up at Jodie’s door. She met Gene Kelly, Michael Douglas, and worked with Prince. Throughout her career, she performed across North and South America, Russia, Asia, Australia, and Europe. 

Laguna Dance Mikhail

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Courtesy of USC Kaufman School of Dance

Jodie with Mikhail Baryshnikov (on left) and choreographer William Forsythe 

Jodie’s second act

When Jodie retired her slippers at the age of 40, a new life awaited. Her second career was as impressive as her first. Since 2005, Jodie has choreographed over 60 ballets created for Germany’s Staatsballett Berlin, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, American Ballet Theater II, Washington Ballet, and The Juilliard School, just to name a few. Her work has been performed around the world, including the Kennedy Center, Princeton University, the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, the Vail International Dance Festival, and many other venues. 

Jodie also taught, staged, and produced a number of ballets for William Forsythe, including productions at Prague National Theater, Zurich Opera Ballet, Teatro La Scala, Paris Opera Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Houston Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Pennsylvania Ballet.

In 2006, Jodie took these skills and talents to teach as a tenured professor at University of California, Irvine and, in 2013, was chosen to lead the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California. “The opportunity to launch a new school at USC – the first school to be endowed in over 40 years – was the chance of a lifetime. I wasn’t looking to leave UCI. I was recruited to do something that very few people would ever have the good fortune to do – to create a curriculum from the ground up, to build a staff and faculty, and to recruit students. I am able to show them the value of a fine arts degree in dance.” 

Laguna Dance Glorya

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Courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

Jodie with philanthropist and founder of USC’s dance school Glorya Kaufman and famed choreographer William Forsythe

How do all these talents and skills across various roles – as dancer, professor, choreographer, and director – coalesce? “It’s all coming from me. I find as I develop as a person, I dance less because it’s not what I do anymore, but it’s who I am. It’s all a part of who I am. When I create a piece, it’s part of my publishing. Instead of writing books, I make dances. My research feeds who I am as a professor. Leaving my desk and having that one-on-one contact with my students uses a different side of the brain. I love to stimulate and educate myself.  I discover new leadership skills I didn’t know I had.” 

Even as a young girl, Jodie recognized the skills she was learning were transferrable and would serve her in every capacity of life. “Now that I’m a leader in the field – an educator and director – I value the amount of dedication and perseverance it takes to be a professional ballet dancer,” she says. “What is a fairytale story is also an incredibly rigorous discipline. I wouldn’t recommend it to the faint of heart.”

Founding the Laguna Dance Festival

To the residents of Laguna Beach, Jodie’s most recognizable contribution might be the founding of the Laguna Dance Festival in 2005. “I always look for the needs and voids in any community, and how can I help facilitate filling those voids,” she says. “As an established artists’ colony, Laguna is primed to expand into the performing arts and be a leader. We should be that west coast presence that’s known for hosting an annual dance festival. That’s the Laguna Beach I believe in and want to live in.”

The Laguna Dance Festival’s repertoire spans modern, contemporary, classic ballet, and full-length ballet. “I don’t have favorites,” Jodie says. “I know what I’ve gotten out of experiencing dance, not just as the performer, but as the viewer. The word experience is what we all want as human beings. We want to experience an emotion or feeling. Dance is such a visceral art form and it was a void in our community. I advocate for the art form because it’s gotten lost. Most people don’t know the joy it can bring. It’s ephemeral. It feeds your soul.” 

Laguna Dance versa style

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Courtesy of Laguna Dance Festival

Jodie with Versa-Style Dance Company founders Leigh Foaad (on left) and Jackie Lopez

Teaching in the 21st Century

“Ballet is a field unique unto itself, and one that’s shared from teacher to teacher,” Jodie says. “It’s an art form that can’t be learned by watching video. It’s an oral tradition, passed down through the generations.”

Despite its deep and established roots, Jodie also believes dance must speak to the current culture and reflect the present time in which it’s performed. “Ballet is a preservation of our history,” she says. “To see classical, traditional ballet is sublime. But it’s imperative that it reflect the culture in which we live.” Jodie likes to see ballet dancers who have different body shapes, different skin tones, who have different styles and ways of moving. “That belongs in ballet as well. That’s the contemporary world we live in, and I advocate for that quite a bit.”

Jodie encourages women to create their own dances and cultivate their own style. “Women should not simply exist as the muse for the director. I tell dancers, ‘You can be the director.’ It’s important to break the hierarchy set up in ballet 300 years ago, see who we are today, and respond.” 

For the little girl who once danced alone in her mother’s living room, striving for the stage to one day perform her Juliet, Jodie’s quest for perfection never ends. She continues falling in love with ballet in all its iterations. More important, she persistently shares that passion with audiences young and old, near and far.

This year’s Laguna Dance Festival, featuring world-class dance performances by Parsons Dance Company, RUBBERBAND, and Ballet West takes place on Friday, Sept 27 – Sunday, Sept 29, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in Irvine. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Laguna Dance Festival website at www.lagunadancefestival.org.

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Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists. Scott Brashier is our photographer.

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