Kimmie Dobbs Chan

Deviated Theatre’s co-founder, artistic director and choreographer.
Headshot of a woman.

Photo: DEVIATED THEATRE ©2016 Enoch Chan

Music Credit: “Renewal” composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smityh.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: DEVIATED THEATRE is a company that my husband and I put together. We started in 2008 and we create dance operas. We call them dance operas because we mix contemporary dance, a little bit of circus and storytelling, acting, sometimes martial arts, and we tell a story through movement. So operas are telling stories with song; dance operas are telling stories through movement.

Jo Reed: That is Kimmie Dobbs Chan. She’s co-artistic director of the dance company DEVIATED THEATRE, and this is Artworks, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan has a deceptively small voice that doesn’t really convey the breadth of her talent, vision, and ambition. Creating a dance company is a bold move…and creating a company that combines ballet, modern dance, martial arts, and circus arts including aerial work—dancers flying over the stage on silk ropes – and all of it in the service of story—is bolder yet. As DEVIATED THEATRE, Kimmie and her husband, visual artist Enoch Chan, have created some half-dozen full-length dances, and received both critical and audience acclaim—Yet, like many artists, I’ve spoken with for our series Dual Lives— they also have to work at day jobs to keep DEVIATED THEATRE going. It’s not a life for the faint-hearted—in fact, it takes a lot of guts as well as talent and that’s where my conversation with Kimmie Dobbs Chan began.

Jo Reed: Why did you want to start your own company? The creative freedom part I get, but taking on the business aspect I don’t just because I’m not a business person <laughs>, so, so tell me why. What prompted you and Enoch to start DEVIATED THEATRE?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Well, luckily I think sometimes when you start things you’re overwhelmed with the excitement of it and you don’t think through all of the challenges and all of the logistics, so we did dive in headfirst and we wanted to work together. He has a theatre background; I have a dance background. We wanted to try something together and we also wanted to do something that we didn’t see in other companies at the time. We wanted to do more storytelling through movement, um, not a musical, not a ballet, but we wanted to write our own stories and find a way to tell stories through movement without having to know the story ahead of time. So for example, it’s holiday season right now. Everyone goes and sees The Nutcracker and that’s a nice doorway into the dance world. That said, we were finding some of the choreography that we were watching was confusing, and if you didn’t know the story ahead of time or didn’t have program notes you might not understand what was happening, so we decided to take a chance at writing our own story and tried to tell it differently so that it could still draw the audience in and draw them along without having to spell things out in words.

Jo Reed: So, In other words, somebody walking in off the street to see a performance would have a sense of what the story is about if they just came in, sat down, no program, nothing.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: That’s our goal, yes, absolutely. We tend not to put too much information in the programs for that reason. We try to make it a blend of spectacle like some of the circus skills so something that glimmers, that’s interesting and entertaining, but then we also try to give a depth-- an emotional depth so that there’s a little bit more to chew on.

Jo Reed: How did you come to incorporate circus arts into your work? I know you studied dance. Had you studied circus arts as well?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: I personally have not done many circus classes. I’ve done a handful. When I started creating I realized a great element for storytelling. It adds dimension to the stage, it allows you to fly, it brings up so much imagery that isn’t available just on the floor, so I took a chance with our first production and I spoke with some friends who did some work on aerial fabric and we went with it and it was really successful – so these days I mostly direct and choreograph from the outside, so I don’t do much dancing in the air myself although, I really admire all those who do.

Jo Reed: What brought you to dance originally?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: I started dance when I was probably four years old. I had an au pair from Austria that loved to dance. She would dance with me at home and then my mom put me in classes and I stuck with it.

Jo Reed: In school you studied kinesiology. Did you study dance too?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: My degree is in kinesiology. I was taking a break from dance somewhat in college and by that I mean I was still taking class, just not as much. <laughs> Anyone who’s a professional dancer knows that it takes day after day, hours of dedication, and so in college I did take a semester of ballet; I took a semester of intro to modern. I didn’t get to take any of the higher-level courses since I wasn’t in the dance program, but dance never totally left or I never totally left it.

Jo Reed: Why kinesiology?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: So I started my studies at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and I was putting together a concentration on the integration of mind and body in the performing arts, and I was there 2001 to 2003, which means I happened to be in New York downtown on September 11th. Long story short, I needed a change of pace in 2003 and my aunt suggested University of Maryland had a kinesiology program, and I thought about it and not only would I get to come home and de-stress, I would also get to continue down that concentration of mind and body in health.

Jo Reed: You were brought up in the Washington area.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Yes. I grew up in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Jo Reed: How did that combination of studies work for you?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: University of Maryland gave me the hard sciences that I couldn’t actually get at the Gallatin School. Gallatin is very interdisciplinary, so I got lots of great movement classes and a lot of great experience, but then I was able to back that up with a science degree.

Jo Reed: How did you return to dance – serious dance?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: From somewhere in the middle of my senior year of high school until I was probably twenty-three or twenty-four I consider having taken a break. So I took a few classes here and there but I wasn’t really focusing on it. My husband is a dance photographer and he was photographing a lot of modern dance companies in D.C. and I was able to attend some dress rehearsals and there was one dress rehearsal by Meisha Bosma of Bosma Dance and I found it so incredibly moving and I realized, “what am I doing with myself; I need to get back into more dancing.” I was just so moved and I was really lucky he let me tag along for that photo shoot, she let me be there to watch, and I ended up auditioning for Bosma Dance, getting into the company and then I was in it; I was back in dance.

Jo Reed: Okay so when you’re back in dance and we talk about focusing on dance explain what your life is like. What does that mean?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: For me it was a conscious decision to integrate dance into my life. Being able to rehearse and perform with Bosma Dance gave me regular access again to practicing technique, to getting in my body again and—

Jo Reed: And I would imagine to teachers and mentors as well, to a community of dancers. Right?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Yes. Having a community of dancers is very important. I should also mention another community. My cousin, Melissa Dobbs, has a dance school in Virginia and in between my first and second year at NYU she invited me to teach dance at her school over the summer, which I did, and so that was also part of getting me back into dance and that’s also where I met my husband and artistic partner.

Jo Reed: How did you and your husband Enoch, begin to work together?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: We had always talked about working together and then finally one day the conditions were right and we took a chance. We talked to Deborah Riley at Dance Place and asked her, “What does it take to put on a performance and to put on a production”, and she was very generous with her time. She met with us, gave us some advice, gave me my first key to a rehearsal studio, and we just started. So I would go into the studio and I would play around and he would take photos and video and help me figure out what I was doing and then we applied for an opportunity to perform at Dance Place. Once we had the date, then we asked our friends, “Hey, would you like to join us for this performance”, and luckily some of them said “Yes” and we got started and we did our first show.

Jo Reed: And what show was that?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Our first show was called Aspiro-- step into curiosity.

Jo Reed: Were you DEVIATED THEATRE at that point when you put on that show?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: We were. That was our very first DEVIATED THEATRE production.

Jo Reed: Enoch, as we said is a lighting designer, he’s a photographer. How does his talent and aesthetic work with yours?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Well, I am one of the luckiest choreographers in the world because I have a theatre director and lighting designer and photographer, videographer that’s my artistic partner, so we create the stories together, we write the stories, we’re both artistic directors, and this means as I’m choreographing he can also be conceptualizing the lighting design and that becomes an integral part of the storytelling as well. So our ideal is to create a fully finished environment looking at the lighting, the sound, the costumes, every single element so that you enter into a completely different world. Another aspect of our relationship that’s really helpful is most choreographers don’t have an editor and I do so sometimes dancers and choreographers can get really attached to certain movements and Enoch will tell me sometimes, “This has to go. This section doesn’t move the story forward; it doesn’t add anything to the characters or the environment,” and he can give me that feedback right away so I’m really lucky.

Jo Reed: How do you begin a new production Kimmie? Where do you start?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Writing a production is a little bit like writing a book. An author begins, they have an idea, something that catches fire and gets them started, but they don’t always know where they’re going to end up when they get started. I usually like to start with the character and that informs the movement style so we blend different styles. Sometimes it’s a little more balletic, sometimes it’s a little bit more contemporary, sometimes it’s more pedestrian.

Jo Reed: When you say “pedestrian” what do you mean by that?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: “Pedestrian” is casual, everyday movement. It’s gestures; it’s expressions; it’s walking without pointing your toes. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Got it. Okay. Thank you.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: We often now like to bring in children to some of our productions.

Jo Reed: I was going to ask you about that because I know in at least a couple, in siGHt and in creature, there are kids and I’m assuming I guess in others too. Tell me why.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: We love seeing things from a child’s perspective. We love the newness that it brings to everything and in a sense the audience is viewing everything from that perspective. It invites a curiosity. Also, we find it actually really beautiful the way that children move so freely, so comfortably, not self-conscious in any way, and just seeing a child run across the stage is so beautiful in its own way and it’s its own movement style contrasted with the very intricate dance that is sometimes happening.

Jo Reed: So it’s almost like a natural movement of a child versus the choreographed movements of the dancers, which is not to say that the child also isn’t given direction but it’s a different way of operating on a stage.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Absolutely, and it gives the audience a way in because the children are looking at things for the first time and they also bring a-- an honesty-- an “innocence” is the word I’m looking for. If you’re going to do dramatic material, you also have to bring in a little comedic relief and children are great for that.

Jo Reed: Two questions. Let’s stay with comedic relief because I know that comedy – humor is probably a better word – humor is important to you and that’s something that you do want to interweave into your work as well, which is not to take away the seriousness of the story but it’s just to give it another dimension.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Absolutely. I’m thinking of growing up watching David Parsons’ choreography and he did very funny dances sometimes and that always influenced me. Also, physical comedy has always been an interest of mine and people are funny; <laughs>

Jo Reed: How does humor help tell the story, because you’re story centered?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Humor makes things palatable <laughs> so we like to talk-- we like to introduce sometimes very dark concepts in our work. We like to examine the human psyche. We like to go places that are sometimes overlooked and they’re hard places to go and so you have to give the audience something to draw them along to get them there.

Jo Reed: And humor is that.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Humor really helps with that absolutely and there’s truth in humor so humor allows you to show what’s really there in a very honest way.

Jo Reed: Can you give me an example?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: We’re awkward. I love to explore awkwardness because we all experience it all the time and it- it’s something people can immediately relate to. It also helps us laugh at ourselves and it helps us embrace things that sometimes are hard to embrace.

Jo Reed: Well, your production creature has some very awkward movements in it. And it also has some beautiful lines and movement. Talk about the way you juxtaposed these.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: One gives contrast to the other and helps the other to shine more brightly so we like to give dimension to our work.

Jo Reed: Tell me the story of your recent full length work creature. What’s creature about?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: The story of creature is actually one that you can’t fully explain in words because we use archetypes, we use images just like directors will take written books and turn them into movies and they have to adapt them to fit that genre, the story that is told, and movement is not exactly that which can be said fully in words. Having said that, creature is an apocalyptic story. It’s about the Anthropocene Era, which is this modern era of the planet where humans have had such an impact on the landscape of the Earth over the past 200 years especially. So creature looks at the Industrial Age into the Digital Age and gives a projected outcome <laughs> which ends up an apocalypse and invites a reimagining of how things can be so with an apocalyptic story you get the opportunity to ask the audience what would they like to create.

Jo Reed: Because you study kinesiology you have a scientific idea of how the body works and especially what you can expect from a dancer because they can be hurt so easily; that has to impact the way you choreograph or maybe it doesn’t, but I would assume it does.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: I think having a kinesiology background informs the way that I teach the choreography, especially. We like to check in with the dancers, make sure that they’re doing things in a way that is most efficient, so we often check in, how’s this working; if something doesn’t feel right, speak up. We also look at that in terms of how we organize the rehearsal schedule so we always start with a very long warm-up. We actually started our very first productions without any warm-up but then we realized that the dancers needed to move in the style of my movement before they could do my choreography because we do a lot of getting up and down off the floor and that takes a certain amount of conditioning and so we organized the warm-up according to that choreography. And so each production as it develops based on that movement we design the warm-up around that.

Jo Reed: In the rehearsal process, I’m curious how open are you to dancers suggesting things and working with you on it or are you more comfortable with “Here’s what I’m looking for. Please do it and” –

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: In the beginning I used to choreograph by myself in a room for many hours before I would bring it in front of anyone else. That was especially important in the beginning because no one knew what my voice was so I really had to know what I was coming in with and know where I wanted to take it. In the beginning, it was more difficult to get dancers to try some of the things that I was saying. They had a different frame of reference, they had whatever their training was, and we were also bringing together actors and dancers of different backgrounds and creating a new genre of storytelling.

Jo Reed: Especially ‘cause you’re adding circus arts as well.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Definitely.

Jo Reed: Did the dancers have a hard time adjusting?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: In the beginning I had to really work to explain to the dancers how this was different than other choreographers or what nuance I wanted to put onto the work. After a few years, it’s gotten much easier and I have now more of an artistic family that’s familiar with my movement that has been working with me for several years and I can allow them to bring more of their own artistry, because they understand the Dobbs Chan technique. We have a shorthand and they understand a lot of the aesthetics that I’m looking for and so nowadays I want to see them bring their unique take on the project.

Jo Reed: Yeah, that makes perfect sense and that takes time to develop. I know you’ve received accolades and you’ve also gotten grants but are you a self-sustaining company? How do you support yourself?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Well, we are certainly looking for the right model. We have tried several different models so we are we are figuring it out as we go. We would love to make D.C. a go-to place for dance. There’s a lot of great talent here that either goes to New York or goes to L.A. or goes to other cities and so we would like to have a self-sustaining company. Meanwhile, we are just going project by project, figuring it out along the way, so we end up financing it a lot ourselves so we put in many hours working at other places to finance the projects. We’ve also done things like “Kickstarter” but we’re still tweaking the infrastructure.

Jo Reed: What’s your day job?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: I spend many hours during the week teaching Pilates and Gyrotonic.

Jo Reed: What’s Gyrotonic?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Gyrotonic is a newer movement technique; it’s only about 30 years old and it fits in with yoga and Pilates. It’s one of those mind-body movement systems. It’s very three-dimensional; it’s circular and it’s rhythmic and it puts movement patterns into your body.

Jo Reed: How does that work with or is it challenging then to deal with the company because you have to spend so much time working-- I’m assuming your husband does as well-- and basically having a day job and then finding the time to do the artistic side of your life?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Yes, a hundred percent. <laughs> It’s always a challenge; every day is a challenge. Tuesdays are my long day; I go about two hours in traffic to get to Georgetown to teach. I teach for eight hours straight without a break and then I go to rehearsal for four hours and then I go home; it’s a very long day. <laughs>

Jo Reed: How often do you ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: There’s many days where I ask, “Why am I doing this again?” <laughs> But luckily the passion of dance and the passion of creating it will never leave me alone. I’m always seeing dance; even sometimes when people are speaking, the rhythm of their voice, I see dance imagery-- in my head. I sometimes get what I call dance headaches which-- the best thing I can describe is-- I found if you have a song running in your head that just won’t disappear and your brain is trying to figure it out my brain does that with choreography so when I’m trying to choreograph something it will play the dance over and over until I get through to the next section, so for better or worse the creative aspect is always there and I can’t ignore it.

Jo Reed: Is there a way that it works with your teaching?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Absolutely. What I do by day is also choreographing. I’m problem solving. I’m designing custom workouts every single hour for different bodies, different personalities, based on their needs, moment by moment based on how I see their body respond to the movement, and I see how to create balance in their structure and how to design a complete workout from beginning to end. So I definitely look at teaching Pilates and Gyrotonic as choreographing as well.

Jo Reed: DEVIATED THEATRE really has gotten -- it’s a new company but it’s a successful company and when you think that your company was one of the things that reopened the East Wing of the National Gallery that’s a huge honor, and yet the difficulty of financing is still a struggle. You know having to work so hard at the day job I order to maintain that. Obviously it’s challenging but it has to be a little frustration.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: <laughs> Yes, probably more than a little frustration <laughs> but it’s-- it was an absolute privilege to perform at the National Gallery of Art and definitely an honor to be invited to be part of the community weekend for their reopening of the east building. I don’t think I’ve heard us called a success before -- thank you for that; that was an interesting experience. It feels like a struggle daily but there are days when we think well, we’re still here; we’re still able to try again and put on another production. It does feel like starting from zero at times. We have dancers and artists who are very transient by nature moving through and we’re having to retrain in our movement style and our storytelling style and recast and also starting from zero with creating the budget to initiate a production. So it does feel like building up and then washing away and building up and washing away, but again we’re still here somehow. That has to count for something.

Jo Reed: I think that counts for a lot. What is next? What project are you working on?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Our next project is Beyond. It has a space theme, outer space, and we might be going to Mars.

Jo Reed: We look forward to that, and then finally where did the name DEVIATED THEATRE come from?

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: DEVIATED THEATRE just came out of-- <laughs> I know that Enoch and I decided on the name DEVIATED THEATRE before we even did our first project together, but it does go along with our favorite catchphrase, which is “depart from the norm,” and we can use that as a license to try new things. So if you want to innovate you really need to do things differently than before and not only just differently, but listening to your unique artistic voice. So every one of us is unique, every one of us has a different gift, a different perspective that we can share, and so “depart from the norm” and DEVIATED THEATRE are really reminders to follow that path, to embrace what makes you unique and even if sometimes there’s a little bit of the ordinary.

Jo Reed: Thank you so much, Kimmie. I really appreciate you coming in.

Kimmie Dobbs Chan: Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: You’re welcome.

Jo Reed: That was Kimmie Dobbs Chan. She co-artistic director or DEVIATED THEATRE. You can find out more about them at deviatedtheatre.org. You’ve been listening to Artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities around the country, keep checking the “Art Works” blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Creating a new language of dance.