Seattle dance collective creates new platform for diverse artists

Au Dance Collective Members
Au Collective members from left to right: Fausto Rivera, Rebecca Smith, Lorraine Lau, El Nyberg, Cheryl Delostrinos, Austin Nguyen, Michael O’Neal Jr., Hallie Scott. Not pictured: Imana Gunawan and Randy Ford. (Photo by Andrew Imanaka)

Cheryl Delostrinos and Megan Erickson debate over when Au Collective actually started.

But one thing is indisputable for Delostrinos and Erickson, artistic director and co-producer of the collective, respectively: the idea to start it grew from frustration with the local dance industry.

After almost a year after graduating from the University of Washington’s (UW’s) dance program in 2013 and going their separate ways, the two dancers reunited. They had each worked with different artists and dancers in Seattle.

“Are you happy? Are we doing what we wanted to do in the community?” Delostrinos recalled she and Erickson asking of each other. 

“I feel like we kinda agreed that there was something missing for all of us,” she said.  

That “missing something” is the feeling of inclusivity, of acceptance, and celebration of unique identities of the dancers, choreographers and producers of the collective. Delostrinos said that there was a sense of urgency to create a space that celebrates and strives to bring the perspective of marginalized communities to the stage. Au Collective reflects women, queer and people-of-color perspectives on stage and in film, creating multi-racial dance art that is accessible to all audiences.

Au Collective’s Cheryl Delostrinos and Fausto Rivera. (Photo by Andrew Imanaka)

Coming from a Filipino-American household, Delostrinos also said that she wants to create dance that is relatable and entertaining for her family — usually not jazz, ballet or modern dance.

“[My] community doesn’t go and watch modern dance; it’s not part of our culture,” she explained. “As a first-generation Filipino-American, my family still don’t know what I do; they still are confused.”

In addition, not all more mainline dance companies embrace diverse and marginalized voices. After graduating from the UW dance program, El Nyberg, one of the collective’s dancer/choreographers, Delostrinos, and Erickson said they felt unwelcome in many dance spaces in Seattle, and still get nervous.

Nyberg recalled one community discussion the collective attended sponsored by a few big names in the Seattle dance scene.

“A lot of us showed up to the discussion that was supposed to be centered around POC (people of color), queer women’s experiences in Seattle dance, and we all tried to say what we wanted to say,”  they said. “It was just not received very well. Pretty much … the reaction was like, “Well, what are you gonna do about it?””

The unsupportive response ended up being a milestone in Au Collective history. Nearly a year later, Nyberg and other members of the collective with similar experiences came together to take matters in their own hands. Now they are rehearsing and fundraising for their first evening-length dance performance this fall.

“We feel the need to put people of color, queer people and allies on stage, together, because it’s really important to these people to be seen,” Delostrinos said. “We are working artists, we’re here, we’re not invisible, and we’re creating work that is relatable to our communities.”  

The visibility of bodies of marginalized dancers are not the only the focus of Au Collective. Nyberg said that, while it’s one thing to make the same old work and then put brown bodies in it, it’s quite another to actually have a creative process that is different centering those people and their experiences.

Jennifer Salk, director of UW’s dance program, has worked with and taught many members of Au Collective. She said she and her department are finding the need to create courses for students whose identities cross multiple boundaries.

“Dance departments across the country need to realize that ‘technique’ is not just ballet, modern, tap, jazz. It is tango and salsa, and popping and locking, and Krump and breaking, and on and on,” Salk wrote in an email. “The students who are constructing Au Collective are the people who make inroads —  they are caring and compassionate, smart and creative and reverent to tradition, knowing they have to break the molds that exist.”

The dance collective is comprised of 10 dancers and choreographers, each with their own set of privileges and struggles. Recently, Ryan Diaz, a promotional designer for Au Collective, hosted an anti-oppression workshop during one of their rehearsals. The goal was for members to build the connection between structural inequality and individual experience, to understand that they each came into the world with unequal conditions of privilege and oppression that will make their way into their art.

Delostrinos, Erickson and Nyberg said that this group of people trust and care enough about one another to call out ignorance and give credit when it’s due. Nyberg, who has had changes in name and pronoun preferences throughout the years, said that Au Collective is a place to learn, challenge and process together.

“We’re invested in each other as people, and we’re invested in each other’s process, we’re invested in each other’s art,” they said. “. … So it just makes sense to do that work with people and to take the time to — obviously, from a place of so much love — call people out and ask people questions, tell people when they are, you know, messing up, tell people when you appreciate the work they’ve done, see the growth that they’ve had.”

In line with this value of growth and development, Au Collective is determined to invest in youth. In fact, a portion of the money raised through their ongoing Hatchfund campaign will go toward panel discussions and youth workshops they plan to host all over Seattle. Erickson said that they don’t want to merely show and tell their experiences to the youth, but to create space for them to experience dance.  

“It’s one thing to just to [say], ‘Oh, we wanna see brown folks on stage, we wanna hear more from queer artists, [and] center these people,’” Nyberg said. “But how effective is it if we’re just working with us, if we’re just putting ourselves on stage and letting that go? Who’s gonna show up after us?”

Au Collective is presenting their first evening show, “Gold&Skin” on Sept. 10, 11 and 12 at 12th Avenue Arts’ Studio Theatre in Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The performance, featuring Delostrinos’ ensemble work, “Closer,” Fausto Rivera of Spectrum Dance Theater, and Michael O’Neal, Jr. (currently dancing in Amy O’Neal’s “Opposing Forces”), will blend balletic lines and modern technique with hip-hop, big movements and athletic force.

Au Collective’s Hatchfund campaign will partly fund their debut show.

Buy tickets to “Gold&Skin.”