Dancer/choreographer Marla Brattain Hansen comes to the table with an impressive list of accomplishments: She's the founder and co-artistic director of award-winning Idaho Dance Theater; she's an associate professor of dance at Boise State University; and she's the founder and director of the Boise State Summer DanceFest Workshop, now in its 18th year. Boise Weekly caught up with Marla for a chat about her life, her art and her take on the Boise dance scene.
Boise Weekly: How did you start dancing?
Marla Brattain Hansen: My folks put me into dance class because I was always dancing--starting from the time I was walking. My parents were both music lovers; they both sang and played instruments. So music was part of my growing up, and I just reacted to the music. My dad had been on the football team in college and taken some ballet classes to improve his game. He was in the Air Force until he died in Vietnam, so we moved around a lot. When we were in Germany, he took more ballet classes. I remember him out in the yard, teaching me how to do leap steps. I'm thankful to my parents for getting me into dance.
You got your MFA in ballet at University of Utah. How did you end up in the American Festival Ballet?
I met my husband [Fred] at University of Utah. He was a modern [dance] major, and I was a ballet major. I got an MFA in Choreography and Performance in 1978, then danced with companies in San Francisco and Portland. Fred and I had some friends who lived in Boise, and we really loved Idaho, so we ended up auditioning for American Festival Ballet [now Ballet Idaho]. AFB was a small company--ballet-based but contemporary. We both auditioned and got hired. That was clear back in 1981. The company was based in Moscow, but the year we joined, they moved the whole company to Boise, kit and caboodle, to be closer to the economic center of Idaho. At the time, it was an imperative move.
You were ballet mistress for AFB as well. What exactly does that mean?
It meant that I taught company class and was the primary rehearsal person. When the choreographer or artistic director was working in one studio, I would have the rest of the dancers in the other studio, cleaning up the choreography. It takes someone who is really picky, has a good eye about what [dancers] need to fix, and also has the ability to communicate well. Someone who's nice and doesn't piss everyone off. [Laughs]
Your husband specialized in modern dance. How did he fit into a ballet-focusedcompany?
In any good dance program, you're going to do both. You focus on technique in one form. But [in college] he also took the ballet majors' technique class; that was the beginning of him getting serious about ballet. So he was more hireable with that background, more versatile.
That answers my question about why Idaho Dance Theater mixes ballet and modern.
It's all just dance to me. What makes IDT special, different than a lot of modern companies, is that the dancers are classically trained--just like good musicians who have classical technique, then do whatever they want, like [cellist] Yo-yo Ma or someone like that.
*Why did you and Fred decide to start your own company?
Back in the days when we danced with AFB, it was a lot more like IDT because it was a small company. The only full-length story ballet we did for years was The Nutcracker. The rest was all original repertory. After the move to Boise, the board of directors felt it would be financially useful to start doing more large story ballets. But with the growth came huge financial risks. They ended up in debt, so they needed to make some changes. I was asked to be acting artistic director [while they searched for a new artistic director]; I had two and a half weeks to choreograph the full-length production of Cinderella. I had never choreographed a three-act, full-length ballet, and I thought, what have I got to lose? And I remember thinking, I'm just going to treat it like everything else I choreograph and just go with the flow. It turned out wonderful--we toured and did 17 shows. But it was a grueling year. So at the end of that season, Fred and I called it quits. It was a huge decision. That spring when the season ended, Fred and I started getting phone calls from venues in other cities, and we said, "You know, we don't have a company, but we'll put one together and come perform." So that's how it started.
Fred retired from dancing due to an injury. Is that just one of the hazards of the art?
It's a constant worry. If you're lucky enough to be able to dance into your late 30s, even into your early 40s, you're a lucky dancer--and that means in the process you've had lots of injuries. But you learn how to take care of yourself, if you really want to dance. There are dancers who give up, who don't take care of themselves, or let an injury overtake them. They didn't psychologically prepare themselves for how to deal with it.
How much is that addressed in dance education, or in the system? Do directors expect a certain number of dancers to not be able to perform every season?
It's different depending on the kind of company. It's an important part of education. That's why I started studying kinesiology as a freshman. Physical awareness is a big part of my teaching: trying to do things right and not get hurt, knowing when it's time to take a break and let the body heal. So many dancers are paranoid of getting out of shape. They won't take a break, so they get hurt or run down. Part of it is that there are so many women out there that want to be dancers. A lot of companies figure, if so-and-so gets hurt, there's always somebody else.
So people push themselves.
What do you think it takes to makes a great dancer?
You've got to have the physicality--physical expressiveness, physical awareness, and a strong body able to handle the rigors of dance. And you have to have musicality. You have to feel the music, be one with the music. But it's more than that, it's also about the love of performing. If you're going to be a concert dancer, you have to love to show off--to get on stage and take the kind of risks that go with live performance. Great dancers take you with them on a journey; sometimes you're blown away [by what they do], but it doesn't pull you out of the dance. There's no fear--you never feel you have to worry about them, you just trust them. I may be prejudiced, but I think both of my sons [Yurek and Leif] are remarkable performers.
How did they start dancing? Did you see in your sons what your parents saw in you, that desire to dance?
They were surrounded by dance, but we never said, "You need to go take dance classes." They never got training, except in the summers. I started DanceFest in 1990, so that's when they started. They didn't get training the rest of the year. But I think the reason why they got as good as they did as quickly, is that they saw so much dance, they came with us on tour. So they were seeing it and taking it all in. And they never had bad teachers, so they never learned bad habits that they had to unlearn.
I imagine part of learning to be a good dancer would be not having it imposed on you, but having the will to dance come from inside.
Yeah, that's been very true in both cases. Yurek is still dancing all the time, and Leif's last performance was a little over a year ago, right before his baby girl was born. Since then he just can't afford to dance. He's got to have a job that pays more and has benefits.
You've worked with a lot of different artists and designers. Could you talk about your collaborative process?
It's always fun to have other minds in the process and have other people as sounding-boards. I love to be able to brainstorm with people. I come up with things I never would have come up with myself. In some ways, it's challenging because you can't just go in there and do what you want. But it's really rewarding, and it can be more fun. Dance is very social, like a surrogate family. It can be addictive, everyone doing the same thing together with music. There's a sense of community.
Do you have anything else to say to the community at large?
I think if they haven't come to see an IDT performance, they should! [Laughs] You don't have to know about the art form to appreciate it. In every performance there's such diversity, an eclectic mix of music and dances styles--there's going to be something you like. I also think it's so important that the city recognize that contemporary dance, for this community, is more up our alley than trying to preserve the great story ballet classics. Classical ballets have their place and their value, but as far as what this state can support and where our mind frame is--we're a young, vibrant, growing arts community. I think it would behoove the community to invest in the future by supporting the local dance scene and the people that have made this place our home.