Only Stop Dancing If Jury Duty Calls

Marie Chong’s scrappy, inspired ARC Dance celebrates its 10th anniversary season

Marie Chong with ARC Dance company members | photo by Paul Sanders

Tucked around the back of the old Crown Hill Elementary School, where the Gothic 1919 schoolhouse gives way to a long midcentury addition, you’ll find the unassuming doyenne of Seattle ballet education toiling seven days a week for the performance company and dance school she’s built from scratch over the last ten years. “Last time I took a vacation was December 25,” Marie Chong says, smiling from behind her crowded desk. “December 24 I had jury duty.” 

Chong’s magnetism is fierce, and her life has followed her to the dance studio. Her partner, choreographer Kirk Midtskog, creates ballets for the company, and her mother, Seng Eng Chong, works as office manager and treasurer. “Ballet is in Marie’s veins,” says Seng, “but it does not come from me.” After emigrating from Malaysia to Tacoma as a young nurse, Seng says: “I didn’t know about ballet. But Marie demanded to dance when she was three. And she still demands it.”

A former professional dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Chong knows she’s not in Diaghilev’s Paris over here by the Holman Road truck route. Yet she’s proud to have created a permanent rehearsal home (and funding source) for ARC Ballet, her shyly wondrous contemporary ballet troupe. Chong works seven days a week teaching ballet, coaching dancers and gymnasts and leading conditioning classes to raise money to stage ARC Dance’s semiannual performances. If she’s busier than usual right now, it’s due to the fact that she’s splurging to present the company on downtown Seattle stages exclusively this year.

The best little ballet company you’ve never seen, ARC Dance has actually been performing on the Shorecrest High School proscenium stage for the last nine years (with one bank-busting performance at Meany Hall along the way).  Chong and Midtskog choreograph for the group, plus they commission new dances by regional artists like Alex Ketley, Sonia Dawkins and Elizabeth (Betsy) Cooper.  Rigorously rehearsed, ARC’s concerts have delivered the goods for anyone who made it to Shoreline. Selecting dancers who delicately ignite the stage, Chong looks for “something that is complete in them,” she says.

But Shorecrest is — finally — a high school, and gaining any momentum was impossible for Chong up there. Other dancers would come to shows, but the newspapers never did. By 2004, funding needs finally drove Chong to start her own dance school rather than continue as a freelance teacher. “I know I did it backwards,” Chong confesses. “I started a company first, and then a school. But I couldn’t wait.” 

Before all that, she was a dancer — a very accomplished dancer. Known for her rapid petit allegro footwork and pirouettes, Chong was climbing the ranks at PNB when she went through an irreversible moment of conversion to something larger than herself. “I remember the day exactly,” she says. “A group of dancers were in a coffee shop, all of us grousing over roles — such pettiness and misery and self-seeking — and I thought: this isn’t benefiting anyone at all.”

Working from a powerful urge to build community, Chong started setting up a company. She never sought to provide herself with dancing roles; she didn’t call her group Chong Ballet, nor has she ever danced onstage with the troupe.  “I didn’t want to start a vanity company,” she says. Chong gave her company the name ARC Dance. “It’s the foot, the back, it’s motion through space, it’s continuum, it’s bridging a gap,” Chong says.

The irony is Chong’s need to introduce Seattle audiences to her company now that her school has gained exposure here first. “Marie’s facing the challenge of being perceived as having a youth company coming out of a school, but it was never that,” says UW dance director Betsy Cooper. “It’s really a company worth seeing now.”

With a school, a professional mentoring program and a company, Chong can see now that the only small thing about her world of ballet is her company’s $150,000 budget. “I used to be insulted when people would say, ‘The only thing separating your company from PNB is the zeroes.’ But now I see what they meant.”