Inside Austin’s Ishida Dance Company — How Brett Ishida Created Something Completely Unique

Inside Austin’s Ishida Dance Company — How Brett Ishida Created Something Completely Unique

A show at Dell Fine Arts Center and a Tradition of Powerful Pieces

By Catherine D. Anspon
Photos by Amitava Sarkar
ISHIDA Dance Company Austin

We’ve been tracking the ascendant star of choreographer Brett Ishida ever since Karen Sumner, the former Menil director of advancement who is now with the Colorado Ballet, introduced us to Ishida Dance company in 2021. Ishida was planning on taking her then-Austin-based company on the road to perform in Houston, with the goal of having a full-time home there while continuing to perform shows in Austin.

Coffee chats and discussions over dinner followed, and Ishida shared details of her dynamic journey in contemporary dance — one that defied many odds. Now, Ishida Dance company is getting ready to put on of having been breathed out at Austin’s Dell Fine Arts Center this Saturday, June 17.

Brett Ishida

The Brett Ishida Origin Story

Brett Ishida was reared on a citrus farm in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Unlike what we think of California’s Silicon Valley or Hollywood, where I grew up was economically poor, working class and predominately Hispanic,” she says. “Agriculture and football reign in the Valley.

“I was the nerdy, skinny Asian kid that wanted to be a ballerina.”

She and a friend discovered Balanchine videos on cable TV, then danced to them in an impromptu home studio when they were 11 or 12. This American master still influences both Ishida and her company aesthetic.

“Balanchine works are visually beautiful with alluring lines as well as complex patterns,” Ishida says. “Like Balanchine, music is extremely important to my choreography because it drives the thread of the narrative.” 

At the age of 15, Ishida left California for a full scholarship at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C., followed by study at the iconic School of American Ballet in New York City. A BA in literature from UCLA with emphasis in creative writing and an MA in Montessori Education were part of Ishida’s creative detours, as was a stint living in Mykonos. Then came her move to Austin and now Houston. 

After several pandemic reschedules, we caught Ishida’s bold entry last summer at MATCH in the four-part program no speaking left in me.

Her intuitive performance that night redefined notions of modern dance. Its global cast of dancers melded works by international guest choreographers (Stephanie Troyak and John Wannehag, Jérémy Galdéano and Vera Kvarcáková) with premieres of two Ishida-created works. The audience was mesmerized by the abstract narrative paired with minimalist performances that moved the story forward with emotion and archetypal power.

Since then, the company — which was founded in Austin in 2019 — has added a Houston base of operations, scored a Houston Arts Alliance grant for 2023, and was toasted at a cocktail hosted by noted Houston arts patron Judy Nyquist as a kickoff for Ishida’s upcoming debut at Asia Society Texas Center.

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All of this momentum arrives when the nonprofit has been anointed with what Ishida calls the equivalent of a James Beard Award for dance: inclusion in Dance Magazine’s annual influential “25 to Watch” list for 2023. This honor was no doubt fostered by a recent commission for Ishida to create a work for The Washington Ballet, led by artistic director Julie Kent (who is coming to Houston Ballet as co-artistic director). The piece, home-coming, was deemed “remarkable” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post dance critic Sarah L. Kaufman.

Now, Ishida Dance  is stepping upon its most noteworthy Texas stage to date as Asia Society Texas Center collaborates with the company to present having been breathed out. The title, taken from a fragment written by lyric Greek poet Sappho some 2,500 years ago, alludes to Ishida’s obsession with ancient Greece and its literature. 

The three-works evening includes the world premiere of American Gothic, choreographed by Ishida herself, a metaphoric meditation on the nuclear family inspired by Grant Wood’s 1930 canvas of the same name. Staying true to her vision, she tapped two guest choreographers — Greek-born Andonis Foniadakis and Romanian Edward Clug for Horizons and Mutual Comfort, respectively.

“My company highlights the beauty of the human form from traditional ballet, yet my work is also deeply human, theatrical and visceral. . .” Ishida says. “I hope our audiences connect on a personal level to the work and are challenged toward introspection that ultimately leads to greater kindness towards ourselves and others.” 

Ishida’s having been breathed out will take place at Dell Fine Arts Center this Saturday, June 17 at 8 pm. For more information and tickets (which start at $40), go here

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