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Q&A with Peter G. Kalivas of The PGK Dance Project

SAN DIEGO -- Peter G. Kalivas is one busy man. Most folks around America's Finest City only know him as executive director and artistic director of his dance company, The PGK Dance Project. But that just the tip of the iceberg for this creative talent, who is also a choreographer, singer and actor, among other hats he wears.

Kalivas invited San Diego Gay & Lesbian News to watch a rehearsal of the dance company's upcoming performance of "Continuous Play" at The Vine Theater at the Bernardo Winery, 13330 Paseo Del Verano, Suite 5, in San Diego. The contemporary dance performance will feature world premieres, live music and additional dances by participants in PGK's summer intensive program.

"Continuous Play" will be presented at 5 and 7 pm July 7 and 2 pm July 8 at the North County winery. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors and students, and can be purchased HERE.

In an exclusive interview with SDGLN, Kalivas talks about PGK's new season, the challenges of growing and thriving as a professional dance company, how he applies architectural theory to dance choreography, and a host of other fascinating subjects.

SDGLN: Peter, what do you love about performing at The Vine Theater at the Bernardo Winery? It's not a typical space for dance.

Peter: I like spaces that challenge traditional concepts about where or how dance is presented. The Vine Theater does this. Originally a barn, it is a box with three doors at the front and on both sides leading in and out. This alone allows me to have dancers enter and exit from all over rather than just from the sides which is typical on a stage.

Being only 25 feet x 25 feet, the space is automatically intimate. Whenever I go into an unusual space, I immediately think about how I can use its property, personality to my advantage; point at it, not ignore what makes it unusual but instead incorporate or be inspired by it and make that part of the performance somehow.

Also, the fact that people typically come to the winery up to an hour early to enjoy lunch at one of the restaurants, have wine before, even during the show and after is great and makes the event more like a social experience. The environment encourages people to be relaxed, make a day with great dance, great food, wine and mingle.

SDGLN: What is "Summer Intensive" about?

Peter: Many professional companies will offer an INTENSIVE program where pre-professional dancers aspiring for careers in dance and often interested in a company like ours gets the opportunity to train with us, learn the style we work in, our methods and have more intimate contact with the company overall for one week.

During our intensive this year, we have students traveling from all around the U.S. and one student from Jamaica attending and some closer from San Diego, Riverside and LA County. They will receive training in contemporary technique, which is a blend between ballet and classical modern forms, a repertory course where they will learn a new work, and a composition course where they will engage in various methods of dance making.

At the end they will perform the work they learn and some of the work they create as guest artists on our program at The Vine. Part of the selection process for dancers to participate included an audition this past March where some of the dancers received talent scholarships and others work-study positions where they learn various administrative duties and assist with production, front of house in lieu of paying tuition. The rest pay tuition and out-of-towners stay in a local partner hotel that is providing rooms at a discounted rate.

Most of the participants have expressed an interest in being considered for a position with the main company or an apprenticeship and those we are interested will receive offers at the end and feedback.

SDGLN: During rehearsal, you mentioned that you sing in Vivian's solo, "A Song For You." Tell us about your singing career, which is separate from your dance career!

Peter: I am classically trained in voice and piano, and studied music composition privately during high school on Long Island and at Bennington College in Vermont as a music minor (major was architecture) and The University of the Arts in Philadelphia as a music minor (major was dance).

In college I fronted an R&B band called EXPRESS. I was a soloist with the New York state choir, sang in the chorale of the New England Opera, sang and danced the role of Mr. Mistofelles in the Broadway cast of “Cats” at the Winter Garden Theater, appeared in featured roles in several productions of various musicals including “West Side Story,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph …” among others. Eventually, I gave up on classical and musical theater styles to pursue my interest in R&B, soul/gospel styles of music and singing.

More recently I can be heard as a featured vocalist on the cast album of Bowzer’s Original Doo-Wop Party “Live” in New Zealand (a compilation from a 10-city tour), PBS TV specials with Jon Bauman (aka Bowzer), A "Rockin' Eve" special for Dick Clark, and currently as a featured singer touring nationally and internationally as one of three “Stingrays” with Bowzer (originally of Sha-Na-Na fame and “Grease” the movie) in “Bowzer’s Rock N’ Roll Party.” I am premiering “MSOW” Music Sung Our Way, this coming fall in collaboration with Rayme Sciaroni, where we are twisting up music of yesterday and today.

SDGLN: What is PGK Project Too, and how will that "junior" company be involved in the main dance company?

Peter: The PGK Dance Project Too is our apprentice company. Apprentices are pre-professional dancers generally interested in joining our main company or particularly interested in the training system we work from (ballet, contemporary techniques). Following a formal audition and acceptance they receive free training twice a week, they learn the repertory of the main company including partnering skills, are expected to perform with the main company if someone is injured and they also have their own repertory and their own schedule of local performances. This way they are receiving training, and getting performance experience that is required of them to either join our main company or perhaps if they prefer to dance with another company here in San Diego or beyond we hope to have provided them with the necessary skill set they will need to meet those goals. We want to be an integral part of the foundation to sustain great dance happening in San Diego or to local dancers who might aspire to dance outside of San Diego and represent us well.

SDGLN: PGK did a video for the GSDBA, which will debut July 19 at Wangs North Park. How did your company get involved in this project, and what is its purpose?

Peter: I attended a GSDBA Mixer perhaps a year or more ago to see if this kind of networking situation would be good for our company. As a professional dance company that is interested in partnerships and collaborations with all kinds of businesses, this made sense. Ever since then, GSDBA and PGK have been trying to figure out a way to directly work together. Eventually, they came up with an idea to produce a commercial meant to represent GSDBA in a fun, clever way that might also attract new members. Eventually, they felt it might be interesting to bring me in and see how I might spin the concept. After reading the original script and hearing ideas from the producer and director, I thought it might be fun to imagine the entire concept done as an old fashioned Hollywood musical. So, I took away all the ideas about dialogue and choreographed every bit of action.

In the story, we see two characters who are co-workers, both are planning to go to the mixer but one vows to do whatever it takes to make the most contacts and collect the most business cards. So, in the commercial and through the dance sequences one of the characters is warm, charming and with a winning smile is embraced by the crowd where the other is flirting, being aggressive and very one sided and not so accepted and eventually becomes so desperate he does something very unexpected which folks will have to see the commercial to find out exactly what that is.

The commercial features my choreography, my dance company and several GSDBA members dancing with us. It's awesome, and we had a blast and can't wait for it to be everywhere on the web and beyond.

SDGLN: What does the new season bring for PGK?

Peter: I feel like every year it becomes about evaluating what we want to do, establishing why and then how. I think it’s really easy for art to just be a singular expression; this is one person's interpretation but for me I am sincerely interested in the response of the audience to the work.

I want it to do something to people whether it is being in awe of what the dancers can do or how good they are or that the images, music, movements create a story in their mind.

We are a very intense small organization and we do a lot with very little. We have a small staff, a relatively small budget in comparison to similar local companies and rely heavily on volunteers and in-kind support. We produce, develop and sustain several programs a year most of which relies on partnerships with local businesses and organizations. This includes appropriating spaces donated to us like a store, a hair salon, a warehouse, a lounge or gallery and installing our performances there rather than a theater, which is often expensive to rent. In fact, the space where we rehearse and I teach my classes is part of an in-kind donation and in exchange we promote that space and their programs.

This season is about investing deeper in those programs and relationships and aspiring new community driven partners. We are all about creating and presenting great dance in a way that makes it affordable and available to as many people possible. We are producing performances for Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair this September, which will be the premiere of "The Dancing Garden" where audiences will begin at one end of a tall garden and led throughout to experience several spectacular dances and finish with one larger work on the lawn with refreshments at the other side, producing "San Diego Dances" featuring local professional dance in unexpected places for our seventh and eighth time October 2012 and March 2013, producing Dance on the Edge for ArtWalk in Little Italy in April 2013, which features professional and pre-professional dance companies and artists in Free performances sponsored by UT-San Diego and Discount Dance Supply.

This year we received a grant to present Freespace Dance from NYC, which will include an opportunity for local dancers to perform with this company during a week-long intensive we will produce. We hope to include several well-known companies from Los Angeles this year as well. We hope to "Transform Eden" again; this past April we produced an entire concert in Eden San Diego with the audience sitting on raised platforms and risers throughout the space, the bar was open and Eden provided appetizers for a great, fun evening.

I am the dance lecturer for La Jolla Music Society and through this relationship also work to develop deeper outreach and audience development with artists from companies they present through their dance series. This has included The Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, among other Internationally known companies. This has been in the form of a ChoreLab I designed for LJMS where local choreographers were able to present their work for discussion with visiting artists for feedback and also insight into the "business" of the dance field before an audience who also asked questions to the local and visiting artist. This also includes recruiting local dancers to participate in performances with visiting artists seeking additional performers, which will include Bejart Ballet's "Bolero" in May 2013.

Part of PGK’s outreach and audience development includes providing master classes that I teach or visiting artists I know that are coming to town, to all the local dance programs, making available specially priced tickets and volunteer opportunities to dance students so they can build relationships with our company before they graduate.

"PGK" is also in discussion with La Jolla Playhouse on a project soon to be announced for October 2013.

Touring nationally and internationally is also deeply important to us. During my dance career, I toured throughout the world and recognize the value of sharing the work to as many people as possible and what it does to build our groups dynamic and provides not just locally but globally. This is also how you represent where you are from, your perspective and who you are.

Traveling for me is also a very reflective process. Shifting context always makes me evaluate what I am and what I am doing and allows for other viewpoints to challenge that further. It is important for us to serve our community but it is equally important that we represent our community on the road. Our company and our work has been represented worldwide in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, Central Asia, Australia and this year is no different with invitations to perform in Belize, Zimbabwe, Toronto, and New York City, with confirmed tours in three cities in Florida and return performances at The Boston Center for the Arts.

SDGLN: Kudos for putting together a multi-ethnic company. How important is that aspect to you, especially considering that you travel the globe working in conjunction with the U.S. State Department on arts projects?

Peter: Maintaining a diverse company is very important to me because it is an authentic representation of our audience and community we represent; however it is not contrived in any way. We are mutually attracted to each other and they come to me as much as I look around and scout dancers. I seek dancers with good training but I also seek good people. If I see a great dancer who may not feel like a good person, I move on and look at the next.

Being from New York, I grew up with all the colors, all ideas, concepts visible and present and that's what makes sense to me. At the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, I was a physical minority, meaning that I was one of the few non-African-American or Latino kids that made the majority of the dance department. In high school, I was one of only two Greek-American kids (the other was my cousin).

One of my very first professional dance jobs was working with Judith Jamison (famous soloist and former artistic director of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater). I was one of 12 dancers, I was one of the shortest dancers (including the girls), I had the least amount of training and only two of us where considered "white." In these kinds of contexts you are at the disadvantage and the social privilege that people try to discuss doesn't operate.

Dance is physical; you need to jump as high, turn more, stretch and be just as strong or stronger than everyone else in the room or else you don't exist. It's very cut and dry and this is just what's required. My college dance classes began with 42 kids and after four years only 12 graduated. Albeit some left because they got jobs but most leave because it is simply too hard. This atmosphere made you figure out "why you dance." My first four dance companies I was accepted into were what is sometimes referred to as a black dance dompany: The Jamison Project, Ailey II, Jubilation Dance Company, Footprints Dance Project. This is because the majority is often African-American, the director as well and sometimes they will choose to do work that feels relevant or directed to that cultural community. In these situations the pressure, the role, the responsibility to convince the audience that you can tell their story is huge and when you do it well then you become a part of it and that culture. It's about representing, respecting and not pretending and so when you are open to everyone, everything that should will come to you. In those contexts I was me speaking to and for others, but at some point I wanted those audiences to see me and they did and therefore I was represented too.

I am really interested in providing for that kind of equal representation and sharing and learning from our different experiences. I was in Istanbul, Turkey teaching dance for one semester at a university and while there was scouted by a representative of a dance organization in Kazakhstan, Central Asia. One year later I was in Almaty, Kazakshtan as guest of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department of Education and Culture teaching Western aesthetics through contemporary dance, leading workshops for dance teachers and choreographing on the National Ballet for an upcoming gala before invited dignitaries from countries throughout the region. Ten years later I continue to direct, advise and design projects to promote mutual understanding and respect through dance. I have traveled four times in Kazakhstan, then in Turkey, Zimbabwe, Peru, Brazil and Taiwan, not to mention my work as a Fulbright Scholar at a University in Seoul in South Korea.

Often these projects involve locals of all demographics, levels and interest coming together to create work of their own, and perform together where normally they would not cooperate otherwise. These have included orphaned kids who take dance as an after-school program or kids from shanty towns on government public assistance programs using dance to keep them off the streets at night. As the central figure it becomes my role and responsibility to represent equality and mutual respect using dance as the universal language particularly when we mix professionals with the kids in collaborative projects which we often do.

Many times I bring the kids to the professional opera houses to train and perform with the professional state run companies where everyone wear's the same costume and does the same choreography together as one large company. No more difference and no more division. These projects have really informed my work and my viewpoint.

SDGLN: You describe how you studied to be an architect, and how you find that mathematical and scientific tools can apply to dance. Explain that further.

Peter: Yes, my original intention ever since I was a young kid was to be an architect. I always drew buildings and in high school I took a college drafting course; that's how serious I was about it. I was accepted into Bennington College in Vermont on a full academic scholarship to focus on it.

Eventually however my interest in dance prevailed and I gave up my scholarship, transferred to the University of the Arts to dance and sing taking jobs to pay for school since my parents couldn't. I began my formal dance training at 19 and lucky for me my first ballet teacher was very science specific. She described what all the bones and muscles should be doing during each step we learned and she dealt with coordination and time a lot. She described very clearly not only what should happen but when and it totally made sense to me. She is one of the reasons I went from being a beginning dancer to an accomplished advanced technician in just four years. I took extra classes almost every night at The Pennsylvania Ballet and Philadelphia Dance Company. The math (time) and the science (physics) and relating things that way worked and still does for me now. When I teach I often describe things this way; very, very directly, I say "Do this, then this and you are done." No further discussion. In dance, nothing is "sorta like this or that," not the dancing my company is doing. "It is or its not, you are either good or you are not so good" I like dealing in absolutes and you know the goal and that is what you go for.

Choreography, however, is almost completely different. There are many theories however there is some very basic composition that in my opinion applies no matter what style you work in. Often we talk about something being well crafted. Generally that means it’s made well and the reason for that is it generally promotes visual interest, but probably "makes sense" visually and has some natural logic. It also generally allows for a concept to be revealed or for the audience to imply one. A choreographer can begin the dance making process any way they choose as the focus is on the product.

For me, I continue to rely on my architectural background. It has to use space and movement in a way that feels inventive but economic, not wasting space or movement. If something feels like its extra or "just because" I edit it out over time. That stuff gets in the way. As you work it is over time that it becomes clearer how you should say or show what it is you are going after. Also, it is very, very often you begin with one idea or intention and finish with something altogether different which is something I embrace. I learn something every time I choreograph. I like to realize what works and what doesn't and why and keep track of that. I do this when I watch dance. I monitor every step, how it is performed and I pay attention when I feel something really good happened or really bad and why I feel that way. I very often watch audiences watch dance. The way they respond is very, very telling and a great barometer considering at the end of the day their experience and opinion is what matters most. They showed up, bought a ticket and now its our turn to provide them with an experience they will appreciate. It doesn't always have to be entertaining but I do think whatever it is you do it should be done well.

SDGLN: What is something that most people don't know about you?

Peter: Most people don't know that I sing because I didn't often promote or share that world with people when I moved to San Diego. Most people know me as a serious concert dancer and choreographer. The fact that I performed on Broadway, continue to sing "Rock N' Roll" with a TV celebrity just got too weird to explain so I sorta stopped.

Now, that I no longer dance myself, I have more time to dedicate to music projects and it is moving forward as something I am really doing. I co-choreographed the "Off-Broadway" show "Kilt" about an Irish protestant who moves to Dublin to "come out" and become a stripper in a gay club and the show centers around the conflict that is created with his mother. One of my jobs to pay for college was being a go-go boy in a gay club: The Limelight in NYC and a "stripper" in a straight club in Philadelphia so that experience really became helpful when coaching the actor in that show. I realized I wanted the scene where he strips naked to be unexpected and feel original so we worked hard at designing a concept and the way he went about it to feel "cool, clever as well as very erotic."

SDGLN: Single or taken?

Peter: I have a long time partner, going on 19 years this October. We met in Germany. I was dancing in both in The State Ballet Company and a big contemporary company based in Munich and he was in the U.S. Army stationed in Augsburg about a 30-minute train ride away.

SDGLN: If you could have a dinner party and invite three guests (living or dead), who would they be and why.

Peter: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Alvin Ailey and my Yiayia. I really admire and am drawn to passionate, naturally intelligent, insightful people. Dr. King, for letting his belief push him forward and beyond no matter what and knowing his ideas and his campaign was bigger and more important than himself. Not accepting something he did not believe in. Mr. Ailey, for the same and more. I auditioned after only two years of training for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater school's scholarship program in NYC and he walked directly up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and told me to go back to Philadelphia to finish my training there and return to him because he saw something different and special with me. I returned two years later, was accepted by him and a year later invited to join his second company. He gave me an opportunity and a belief that many would not. Being short was often an obstacle for me in the dance world. There are ridiculous stereotypes about what a male dancer should look like and be and I wasn't that. Mr. Ailey and a few others directors in my career didn't hold that against me and recognized me for the way I moved and the passion and my need to dance. My Yiayia (Greek for grandmother), because she too believed in me unconditionally. She moved to the U.S. from Greece and like Dr. King and Mr. Ailey endured conceptions, prejudice, stereotypes and naive, ignorance but persevered because her cause and purpose was bigger than herself. Also, she makes the most amazing "dolmades with béchamel," which I know the other two would love.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.