The Finest Work Songs: Gabrielle Nomura and the Relay Dance Collective

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Gabrielle Nomura is a dancer/choreographer, and the co-founder of Relay Dance Collective, a recently formed group with five local Seattle dancers at its core, as well as Northwest bands. The collective’s mission is “a commitment to expanding who gets to view, enjoy and take part in dance.”

The group just raised Kickstarter funds for its performance this August, which will feature nine dance works as well as live performances by The Bad Tenants, a Northwest hip-hop group. Gabrielle says “I am both dancing in other people’s pieces, as well as choreographing my own dance, which will be set to live music.” I caught up with her and asked her questions about choreographing her own piece, Paradigm Shift accompanied by The Bad Tenants.

1. What has collaboration meant for you and your work? What does it look like in your dance piece, Paradigm Shift?
First of all, I feel like I work collaboratively within my own skill-set. I have been training in classical ballet since age 4, and, during my high school years, trained in dance more than 20 hours a week! I graduated with degrees in dance and journalism from Western Washington University in 2010, and have since worked professionally as a dancer, as well as a journalist (formerly, Assistant Editor of Bellevue Scene magazine now working in PR). This mix of artistic, creative and practical media skill has served me well in all my dance projects. For example, during my time at Bellingham Repertory Dance company, I was able to assist with our communications strategy, in addition to performing in three pieces for our repertory show! As the founder of Relay Dance Collective based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, I do a lot of administrative, PR and development work in addition to choreographing and dancing for the company.

Working With The Bad Tenants

My unique blend of experience has also been an asset for me in helping my partner of five years, Casey G., and his Northwest-based hip-hop group, The Bad Tenants. I have done a little of everything for The Tenants: I’ve been the official concert photographer, website designer, tour manager, music video extra (“disgruntled officer worker”) and of course, a “Bad Tennette” backup dancer.

Casey and I met in Western Washington University’s journalism department. While both of us possessed a love for journalistic writing, Casey was also an aspiring rapper and a spoken-word poet who had had some success in regional slam poetry contests. I have been working with Casey’s band, specifically, with the group’s disc jockey Gabriel, who goes by the name “DJ Idlhnds” (pronounced “Idle Hands”) to develop a track of music to make a dance to for my company, Relay Dance Collective. The dance will be called Paradigm Shift and will be performed April 21st at Battle for the Dance Belt at Velocity Dance Center, as well as August 24-25 at Dance Fremont! for Relay Dance Collective’s premiere show (this is what our Kickstarter is for!).

The track of music Gabe made for me is a medley of songs by The Bad Tenants that transitions from one to the other seamlessly. It was important for me to represent a dynamic arc of the Tenants’ songs. from the soft, lyrical Rn’B of “Smooth Talk” to the hip-hop banger, “Stay Classy” and back again.

The Tenants are known for breaking the mold of hip-hop. Each member of the group raps; additionally, Gabe DJ’s, Matt is an accomplished blues vocalist and saxophone player; and Casey also plays trombone. The track of music I am using for Paradigm Shift showcases the different sides of the Bad Tenants, from rap, to blues, soul and jazz.

Creating Paradigm Shift

The dance is based off of choreography I did as a backup dancer for a Tenants show at Nectar Lounge. I wanted to take that feeling of being a backup dancer, a Supreme dancing with Diana Ross, but put it in a concert-dance setting, rather than dancing practically in-place as a backup dancer on stage. When you see the dance, it still has a bit of that sassy backup girl vibe — it’s meant to have interaction with the musicians. But, rather than than taking up space, audiences will see a whole lot of attitude and performance quality in a tighter formation usually reserved for “dance crews” you see on MTV — not ballerinas and modern dancers like us!

We will perform to a track of the Tenants’ music for our April show, but I am very excited to share the stage with them for our August show! There is nothing like dancing to live music, and The Bad Tenants get their audiences pumped up and moving with every show. I can only imagine how cool it’s going to feel to be doing slick, choreographed moves as they perform live!

Working with Dancers

The dancers I am working with represent a spectrum of body shapes and sizes, but are all incredibly fierce, beautiful women. I assembled this group specifically for this piece for the strong stage presence they bring. What makes it unique is that most of us are classically-trained dancers who learned hip-hop later. I think it creates a cool, almost Beyoncé-like aesthetic in motion (i.e. we can kick our leg up high, and have all the lines and athleticism of ballet, but with the sass, popping and locking, of hip-hop). When audiences see the dance, they will see hip-hop and jazz movement, in addition to hints of modern dance and ballet.

2. What have been the necessary ingredients for successful collaborations?

One: Patience and understanding for how the other person’s art form works. Secondly, willingness to be flexible and work outside your comfort zone! Finally, check your artists’ ego at the door! A successful collaboration requires that you humble yourself and trust the other artist. Their process may seem strange to you, but I believe the most fruitful of collaborations can only take place when you fully give yourself as best you can to a new kind of process with input from both parties.

3. During the process, what kinds of collaborative pitfalls have you had to avoid or work through?

Performing with The Bad Tenants as a backup dancer the first time, I really had to get used to basically dancing in a self-contained space. I feel like I have used this experience as a creative challenge: Even though my dancers in Paradigm Shift have a full stage to dance to, as I explained above, the dance is more about, “How can I make a dramatic impact with my body in self space?” It requires the dancers to be bold and fearless, as they will be performing more face-to-face with the audience than they’re used to as classical dancers. As classical dancers, we are told to literally “eat up space.”

You can still contribute to the group’s Kickstarter fund, or learn more about their mission to provide scholarships and services for the community and local youth at the group’s website.