JESSICA RIGGS: CREATING, DANCING, CARING & GIVING
As the founder, director, and primary choreographer of Life/Art Dance Ensemble, a recent recipient (2014) of a Master of Science in Human Nutrition, and a registered dietitian nutritionist working for King Soopers and The Little Clinic, Jessica Riggs knows what it’s like to wear more than one hat. And even though it may be a challenge, sometimes, wearing so many hats, Riggs can handle it as long as at least one of those hats is a dancer’s hat.
When I asked about her beginnings with dance, Riggs smiled and told me that she moved around a lot as a kid, so much so that she frequently broke things. It became obvious quite quickly, after meeting her, that a core aspect of her being and way of living centers around body movement. Like many active young girls, Riggs got involved in dance early and continued to take dance classes throughout high school. It wasn’t until college, when, like most people, she put down the fun and creative activities to focus on career and livelihood and stopped dancing. However, that was when Riggs learned just how important dance is to her. As it says about her on the company’s website, “after one semester in college, she realized that she had to dance in order to live.” It was stopping that taught her not to stop.
She graduated from Colorado State University in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in Dance and a Bachelor of Science in Human Nutrition. Studying dance in college gave Riggs the opportunity to not only learn and practice modern dance, but also to choreograph her first dance piece. She was the only dancer in CSU’s Honors Program at the time, and one of the special seminars required a final presentation. During our interview, Riggs explained she performed her final speech with movement that she choreographed. It was her first experience dancing something she choreographed.
After graduating, Riggs relocated, temporarily, to Houston, TX for her Dietetic Internship. While there, she studied at the Houston Metropolitan Dance Center. It wasn’t until she was away from Colorado and our beautiful landscape, that Riggs realized she needed to return. Much like her earlier realization that she couldn’t live without dance, this departure from Colorado showed her how much she “missed the mountains and the texture of the land.” For Riggs, “there’s something comforting in them [the mountains] being there, looking out over the cities.” As an avid hiker and runner, Riggs also knows the exhilaration of being on a mountain top herself. In fact, if we look at mountains as the movement and dance of our beloved planet, rising and falling over countless millennia, it makes perfect sense for a dancer to set her life’s stage at the foothills of one of North America’s greatest ranges.
It was after her return to Colorado that Riggs founded her dance company, Life/Art Dance Ensemble. Understanding the demand and commitment of such a task, she talked, during our conversation about not always knowing how it could happen, and that she used to think: how the heck do people do that? But then she decided to go for it, and it worked! Both the name and concept behind the company stem from Riggs’ belief that there is no separation between art and life. Certainly for her, there isn’t. She admitted that being a registered dietitian nutritionist is something she can turn off; it’s being a dancer, director, and choreographer that she can’t. Those artistic and creative activities are part of her life as much as breathing is.
Along those lines, one of the main tenets of the Life/Art Dance Ensemble is “to explore the intricacies of personal and social issues” through dance and collaboration “with other artists and artistic mediums.” According to Riggs, the dancers in the company are all self motivated, and really work like a team to keep the day-to-day business in good care. One of the things this allows, which deepens the ensemble’s ability to touch on social and personal issues, is their outreach program for subsidized senior living facilities, Livin’ the Dance. Riggs developed her own “natural care for this community” during her time with Volunteers of America, when she visited subsidized senior housing to teach nutrition, exercise, and chronic disease self management. Last year, the program offered by Riggs and her company was about “Dancing Denver’s History.” In 2014, the company dancers interviewed senior audience members about their history and interactions with dance, art, and music. Those interviews were used to compose and choreograph “Like a Memory,” which was then performed, during 2015, at each senior community.
One of the most poignant and, for me, telling moments of my time getting to know Jessica Riggs, was when I asked her what it is about dancing that she can’t live without. In response, her head moved back, her mouth opened, and there was an audible intake of air. As she was muttering something about crying, and her eyes were filling with water, she was able to articulate one word: “movement.” Movement is not only how she lives, it is how she choreographs (no surprise there). Riggs starts with movement not music. Sometimes the music does come in before the choreography is finished, but most often, the initial vision or concept for the dance is not music: it is movement. Overall, her method for creating and choreographing is very organic. Riggs doesn’t have a way of going through the process; it changes every time.
In fact, for one of Life/Art’s 2015 productions, “An Evening at Home,” Riggs said the concept just occurred to her, and she went with it; the difference between a house and a home, the meaning of making a home, etc. The piece explores “relationships through the metaphor of building a home.” Unfortunately, you’ve missed those performances already, but, good news! Thanks to support from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), this year boasts two full productions in May and November. In fact, the next few years of Life/Art Dance Ensemble performances sound very exciting, with multiple collaborations, including work with a full orchestra, a concert band, interactive musical compositions, a number of different dance groups, visual art, and film.
When I asked her if she ever, as the company founder, ensemble director, and principal choreographer, misses just dancing, she quite quickly said “no.” For Riggs, being involved in the creation of something, being a maker, has been profoundly rewarding. In fact, in her words “I consider forming Life/Art Dance Ensemble to be my greatest achievement thus far.” Not only has she created a community of dancers, but together they get to interface with and serve the larger community. And since Jessica Riggs will always be a dancer, and be dancing, and moving, the other hats she wears have to somehow fit on her head alongside her dancer’s hat—that’s the one hat that never comes off.
You can experience the talent, commitment, joy, and passion of Life/Art Dance Ensemble yourself! I highly recommend it! There are two performances this month of “Peter and the Wolf” with Flatirons Community Orchestra on May 14th at D.L Parsons Theatre in Northglenn and May 21st at the Broomfield Auditorium, with shows at 2pm and 7pm both days / locations. Please visit Life/Art’s event page and scroll to the bottom for more information.
Soma Feldmar: She received her MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School, and is now working on her PhD in English from SUNY Buffalo, with a focus on poetics. Other, her first book of poetry, was published in 2009 from Capilano University Editions (CUE Books). Feldmar’s work has also appeared in various online and print journals. Her doctoral dissertation is on poet Robin Blaser and how his work brings the poetic and the ethical together, remaining open to the other and the unknown. Originally from Vancouver, BC, Feldmar recently relocated to Denver, CO, after five and half years in Buffalo, NY. Overjoyed to be back in Colorado, she is happy to be combining her love of dance and writing for Presenting Denver.