5 Questions With Shannon Alvis About Dancing and Making Dances
When it comes to dance, Shannon Alvis has pretty much done it all! Not only has she danced with two of the most renowned companies in the world – Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) and Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), she was also a recipient of the Joffrey Ballet’s Winning Work’s Choreographic Competition in 2017. I got the pleasure of meeting Shannon last year when she choreographed one of her original works Sunrise on Thodos Dance Chicago. Performing Sunrise and working with Shannon was a very impactful experience for me as a dancer. Being such an inspiration, I was intrigued to learn more.
I got the chance to chat with Shannon about some of her most pivotal moments in her career as well as what she is working on next. Here is what she told us:
Melissa Panetta: I recently had the opportunity to work with you a second time, as part of Hubbard Street’s Professional Program (HSPro) in the remounting of Gwana by Nacho Duato. What was it like to re-stage a piece you once danced in yourself?
It was a piece that I danced many times with the company, so the information was very ingrained in my body. It was almost like ‘riding a bike’!
Shannon Alvis: Remounting Gnawa on the HSPro dancers was such a fun experience. It was a piece that I danced many times with the company, so the information was very ingrained in my body. It was almost like ‘riding a bike’! Often times when I had a particular question about a movement, I would just have to try it myself and I would know the answer. After so much repetition, those movements are so much a part of me that having to break them down could sometimes be challenging, but again, as soon as I tried with music the information would just come flooding back. It was wonderful to work with the HSPro dancers and see them really dive into a style so successfully. Nacho’s work is very technically demanding and requires a lot of strength and attention to detail, different from many of the other styles the dancers are doing now. Hearing this music and seeing and doing those movements also brought a lot of memories from such an important time in my life and career. That was also nice…
Melissa: I was born in Montreal, raised in Toronto, and began my professional dance career in Vancouver before moving to the States to dance with Thodos Dance Chicago. My experience in both Canada and the States allows me to understand and appreciate both dance cultures. I know you spent a portion of your career dancing with the NDT. How is the dance culture in Europe different from here?
Shannon: I found the dance culture in Europe to be very different from that in the States. The overall awareness and support for the arts already was one big thing. In general, the arts seem to be more accessible and more common in daily life and society. On top of that, my personal experience with Nederlands Dans Theater was that with extra support financially, it felt there was more possibility for what was put onstage. In production with lights, sets, costumes, as well as simply more freedom to take risks. The thing that sticks out to me the most, however, was how much I learned from the other dancers in the company and their approach to movement. There was such a confidence and sense of abandonment, different than what I had ever seen and experienced before. This could be a longer discussion, but I wonder if this does come from a culture outside of dance.
Melissa: Having had such a successful career performing and working with two major companies, what was your favourite piece to dance in and why? Do you have a favourite memory associated with that piece?
I don’t think in any other experience did I feel so true to myself and my abilities.
Shannon: I have had many wonderful moments and opportunities, and many wonderful memories. I think one of my most special creative experiences though, was a piece called From All Sides by Jorma Elo. This was a pivotal moment in my career in that, I don’t think in any other experience did I feel so true to myself and my abilities. I was an important part of a process, growing into a piece with a lovely and supportive choreographer and group of dancers. This was just very special to me. We performed the piece live with the Chicago Symphony, and I will never forget that moment of taking the bow there in such a beautiful space.
Melissa: Not only have you had an incredible performance career, your work as a choreographer is just as captivating. You have choreographed for companies including Visceral Dance Chicago, Thodos Dance Chicago, and DanceWorks Chicago. What is your choreographic process like and where do you draw inspiration from? Is it similar each time you create a work or does it differ per project?
Creating feels a bit magical, like solving a beautiful puzzle with music, shapes, story, and structures.
Shannon: Choreographing work has fulfilled me in a way that I almost never felt as a dancer. I don’t know if it is being able to delve into so many things and inspirations at once that I love, or watching each of my dancers evolve into my vision. It is just so satisfying… and thrilling really. Creating feels a bit magical, like solving a beautiful puzzle with music, shapes, story, and structures. So far, I tend to draw my first inspiration from a piece of music. I also look at visual art, nature, prose, and science. It is important to me to tell a story, whether this is clear to the audience or not. Often times the story reveals itself to me. I love when the piece unfolds like a mystery and all the elements come together. It is wonderful! But something else that I truly love is that energetic collaboration and connection that I feel with my dancers. To see them grow into the work is such a gift.
Melissa: I heard that you are choreographing for Danceworks Chicago in one of their upcoming projects. What was it like working with the company and what is the nature of the piece you are creating?
Shannon: The piece that I created with DanceWorks is a duet that is actually one section from a project that I had envisioned as a much larger full-evening work. DanceWorks and Julie Nakagawa provide a wonderfully creative environment to explore ideas and had offered me the time and space to do so. From this, came this piece called Hope, that they will perform at their upcoming DanceFlight on March 24 and 25. It has been very lovely working with the dancers. They are a small group and all work very hard, so it is easy to enjoy being in the studio and see my ideas come to life!
DanceWorks Chicago will present their upcoming show DanceFlight at Ruth Page Center on Saturday, March 24 at 7:30pm and Sunday, March 25 at 3pm. The program will include new works by Shannon Alvis and Manuel Vignoulle plus repertoire favorites by Joshua Manculich and more! Tickets can be purchased in advance here at or at the door.
PHOTOS (from top): Photo by Joris-Jan Bos Photography • Courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Shannon Alvis • Courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater and Shannon Alvis • Courtesy of Shannon Alvis.