KT Niehoff revolutionized contemporary dance in Seattle. Now she choreographs a collision of disciplines in an ambitious, year-long project.

It’s early afternoon on a cold January day at the edge of the Seattle Arboretum when choreographer KT Niehoff emerges from a car, slams the door and, with her hands cupped around her mouth, shouts, “Okay everybody, let’s go!”

On cue, more than two dozen dancers stream from other parked vehicles, dressed in black and wearing intricate green headdresses and elaborate green eye shadow. Niehoff wears a fur bolero jacket with large protruding spikes and heeled booties and her hair is teased out and piled high. She looks like a post-apocalyptic warrior—
and bears the commanding presence to match.

Niehoff leads the dancers along a gravel path from the parking lot down to the former SR-520 onramp, now smattered in graffiti. A camera crew and several photographers follow. They’re creating a dance film that will be shown at Washington Hall in early March as part of Lingo Dance company’s Collision Theory—an 11-month series of performances and events meant to explore the depth of performer-audience interaction. Collision Theory is about creating an atypical lasting relationship between performers and their audiences.

After tramping through mud and broken glass, the group reaches the intended spot—an expanse of exposed earth framed by cement posts. The dancers take formation and begin the choreography, a piece that is both jerky and fluid—a little bit hip-hop, a little bit modern dance. There is no narrative, no storyline. Niehoff wants to create a film that is visceral—a piece that explores the subconscious through images and ideas, and probes as the way humans process information.

As dusk approaches, the dancers have been working on the same choreography for at least an hour and a half. A chilly wind funnels in from Lake Washington. Niehoff, still in heels, jogs through the mud between the videographer and the production manager, then turns to the dancers, lifts up her hands and points to the group.

“Okay everyone, one more time. Tighten it up! Best one yet…and then we head up to the top of the bridge.”

* * *

A few weeks later, Niehoff is sitting on the couch in her Capitol Hill event space, 10 degrees. She’s relaxed and friendly in a loose ponytail and turtleneck sweater. Pouring tea, the 40-something co-founder of Velocity Dance Center and artistic director of Lingo talks about the origins of Collision Theory. There have been seven events in the series so far, featuring film, fashion, a dinner, letter writing, singing and, of course, dance. The last piece, The Finale, runs at On the Boards April 18–21.

Niehoff’s work is untraditional. Her company’s website calls the group “KT’s Roving Band of Lunatics, Bravehearts and Artists.” Along with the creative modalities listed above, Lingo has produced social events, museum installations and street performances. The company hasn’t worked on a proscenium stage in years.

In 2007, Lingo created The Lift Project, a one-on-one dance experiment held at the Pike Place Market Hillclimb that involved dancers asking passersby if they would like to be pushed up the hill. The experiment induced meaningful interactions between complete strangers, which is exactly what Niehoff is, and always has been, interested in.

Over the past 20 years Niehoff has emerged as a leading artist in contemporary dance, taking risks and integrating art forms long before it became the norm. Her risks aren’t for creating shock or drawing notice; they’re explorations of communication, reaction and interaction between people. In 2006, Lingo did a traditional stage work called Glimmer, which left Niehoff feeling she didn’t create enough intimacy or connectivity with the people who attended the performances.

“I felt the desire to deepen my audience interaction—physically, emotionally, psychologically. Collision Theory was born from that. That’s that concept.”

Launched in June of 2012, Collision Theory started with a piece called Paper Trail that premiered at On the Boards’ NW New Works Festival. Offering only 45 tickets to 15 spectators at a time, the show paired performers and audience members who wrote letters to each other, revealing anything they wanted: thoughts, emotions, fears, dreams. Duos were encouraged to continue their correspondence outside the theatre, and several months afterward their letters were displayed in a gallery-inspired show at 10 degrees, pasted on the walls and hanging from the rafters.

Other Collision Theory events were more social. Emerald City combined fashion, dance and singing for an evening at the trendy downtown clothing boutique Baby&Co. Dancers dressed in chic ensembles from the store and performed a soft ebb-and-flow of limbs, sharp hand movements and quick footwork. Meanwhile, Niehoff and Ivory Smith—the choreographer’s main collaborator and driving force behind all the company’s music—vocalized a throaty, rhythmic melody that floated somewhere between song and spoken word.

The content and scope of each Collision Theory event was planned in advance—a dinner, a big party, letter writing, a finale—but the big challenge was creating links between the individual components.

“Once the process started it was quite confusing,” Niehoff says. “If I’m not going to use narrative or story or character, how can I connect with the audience?” She turns to gaze out the front windows of her studio. “Our bodies take in so much information. I look out this window and I see that tree, and the filter of the light and I hear typing, and those things don’t connect with a narrative, but narrative isn’t the only way to process information.”

Emily Sferra, a dancer in Collision Theory, admits that sometimes the performers don’t know which way an event will go. “There’s this strong nature of unpredictability with the work because the amount of permission KT gives to the audience in the way she crafts things,” Sferra says.

This is especially true in the social elements of the project. In Raucous Bacchus, an event held at 10 degrees and the neighboring Oola Distillery last December, company members not only danced and sang on platforms in a traditional performance style, but also wandered the warehouse talking to guests and breaking out in impromptu dance. Sometimes attendees joined in, sometimes they stood and watched. Two hours in, the event was a party.

As Collision Theory progressed, it established a set of consistent elements: Music, choreography, hairstyles and stage footlights have appeared in each event, like a tonal thread running through the series. Together these have made for beautiful performances—but Niehoff’s primary interest has been with recurring audience.

“Dance is interesting because we don’t get to live with it like we get to live with a painting or a song or a TV series,” she says. “At best we get to follow an artist, but we don’t get to keep the work. In my quest for a deeper connectivity, I thought, What if I introduce a piece with multiple components, some different and some returning, but give people a chance to not just live with us as a company but live with the work for a year? Would the audience be able to create ownership over the work?”

According to Niehoff, a core group of 40 or 50 arts enthusiasts did. They attended most of the events, got to know one another, and connected with Niehoff so much that she hopes they’ll remain involved in the contemporary dance community even after Collision Theory has run its course.

* * *

KT Niehoff did not start dancing when she was four. Or eight. Or even 14. Instead of running around in tutus and ballet shoes, the young KT (a nickname from her mother) started her stage career with the prestigious Colorado Children’s Chorale where she grew up. She sang with them for 10 years, an experience she credits with teaching her strict discipline and peer collaboration, much like a team sport.

Niehoff attended New York University, where she studied fine art and theatre. One day during senior year while in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, she stopped by Dance Space (now Dance New Amsterdam), and spontaneously dropped in a class. It was the jumping-off point for the rest of her career.

After graduation Niehoff tenaciously pursued dance, working in the studio theatre at Dance Space in various positions—helping with light booth, crew, stage management—and taking up dancing jobs on various projects. In 1991, choreographer Pat Graney traveled to New York to hold auditions for her Seattle-based company. Graney, a 30-year dance veteran, was known internationally for exploring women’s issues in her work, as well as for incorporating visual art, gymnastics and martial arts into her choreography. Niehoff and Michelle Miller—now a professor at Cornish—tried out.

In 1992 they joined Graney in Seattle, where there were very few contemporary studios at the time. Four years later, they struck out on their own with Velocity Dance Center, then located on the third floor of the Oddfellows Building on Capitol Hill.

“They started Velocity and brought this incredible energy to the dance scene,” Graney says. “They were different—they were from the East Coast and they brought a new energy, a vitality to the city. It really was the rebirth of dance in Seattle.”

Velocity offered classes ranging from modern dance to jazz. More importantly, it became a destination. Under the guidance of Niehoff and Miller, the studio started Strictly Seattle, a hugely popular three-week summer intensive of workshops, classes and performances that today draws students from around the world. In those early years, Niehoff also created SCUBA, a grassroots national touring initiative meant to bring nationally emerging dance companies to San Francisco, Philadelphia and Minnesota to expose their work to new regions.

After five years of touring with the Pat Graney Company, Niehoff decided to focus on Velocity, where she remained an artistic director until 2006. With her growing desire to explore the potential of movement, she founded her own company, Lingo Dance, as a platform to create her own work. In 1998 Lingo premiered its first evening-length piece, Reside, a multimedia piece that combined 16mm film, dance and live music to explore the idea of “imprinting” and how residual emotions and past experiences impact people in the lives they live today.

For an inventive mind like Niehoff’s, few rules apply to choreography: She always collaborates with a musician to make original music and she always encourages her dancers to bring ideas to the studio.

“I often refer to myself as a benevolent dictator,” she says. “I need a lot of people and creativity around me. Ultimately I want to be in control of the final product, but I think my work is greater and richer as a result [of collaboration].”

* * *

When the final performance in the Collision Theory series premieres at On the Boards this month, Lingo and the series will come full circle in more ways than one. Niehoff has decided that The Finale will mark the end of Lingo’s epic journey and the company will disband after 15 years. For Niehoff, it’s time to move on. She says she feels pain when she dances now and she doesn’t want to keep creating work past her peak. Still, it will be hard.

“I would be heartbroken if I just completely cut all ties with the dance community,” she says. “I hope I have time to mentor and teach and go to rehearsals and figure out what is compelling me to move on and not just forcing me to move on.”

In the months leading up to The Finale, Niehoff was unsure about exactly what to expect from the show. Like a patient seamstress, she’s still stitching together the pieces, weaving the threads—and looking for the right way to close out a season, a company and a career. But for the multi-talented Niehoff, a challenge like that is just another day in the studio.

“I like shepherding a culture of creativity,” she says. “I feel like it’s a political action. I feel like this group of artists that I’m privileged enough to work with are with me on an investigation of curiosity, touch, softness, taste, movement. And I feel like the work we produce is in the world only because we do it, and that’s very powerful.” 

Photo above by Hayley Young.

Check out June Nho Iver’s Character Study video with Niehoff below for more about how Collision Theory has evolved.