Three dancers to watch

Dancers who create • Set aside all those TV-reality shows. Utah is also the place for another crop of professional dancers who are breaking into choreography.
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In the highly competitive world of dance, it would seem accomplishment enough to be one of the best jazz, modern or ballet dancers in the state. But audiences and critics noticed when Ballet West's Thomas Mattingly, University of Utah's I-Fen Lin, and Odyssey Dance Theatre's Eldon Johnson also began to choreograph with unmistakable authority. What sets these dancers apart is their drive to follow their creative instincts and express themselves as makers of dance.

Thomas Mattingly • At age 22, Thomas Mattingly has already made his mark in three professional ballet companies, working his way west from Richmond Ballet to Cincinnati Ballet before joining Ballet West in 2008.

After two seasons with the company, he was promoted to soloist. His ballet "Above a Grey Expectation" premiered on Ballet West's "Innovations 2009" program, and this year, the Utah Arts Festival commissioned Mattingly to create and restage a trio of dance pieces.

"Working to express myself through choreography has helped me express myself as a dancer, and to understand the process from both sides," he said.

Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute describes Mattingly as a "unique and multitalented artist" and is glad to see him "explore the bigger picture of the art form."

Mattingly's choreographic process blends his innate mathematical sensibility ("I always hated math but was very good at it") with the movement he mines from the dancers through improvisation. He says he anticipates and solves problems before wasting precious rehearsal time or dancers' energy. And his musical training on three instruments allows him to hear music as more than just counts.

"First, I map things out musically," he said. "I hear a solo or a pas de trois in the music, and I follow it."

Mattingly's choreography in "Above a Grey Expectation" moves from the specific to the organic in an organized yet unpredictable way. Each of the six men in the piece individuates from the group, only to be reconsumed by it. Mattingly's creative, math-oriented brain may be one reason he generates this type of ordered chaos.

To create the ballet that will premiere at UAF, Mattingly revisited unfinished conversations and resolved them using movement instead of words. He chose to cast Ririe-Woodbury dancer Caine Keenan, along with Ballet West company dancers Kate Crews, Michael Bearden, Jacqueline Straughan and Saya Ohtaki.

In a characteristic moment of self-reflection, Mattingly aims to keep his success in perspective. "I love where I live and what I do every day — how many people get to say that?"

Matingly's work will be performed on June 25 at 6 p.m. on the Utah Arts Festival's Festival Stage.

I-Fen Lin • Three years ago, I-Fen Lin, 27, left a rising career in dance, her family and home in Taipei, Taiwan, to follow a lifelong dream to study in the United States. It was a decision that has paid off, but not without a lot of determination and self-introspection.

"At first I felt lonely and defeated," Lin said. "I didn't speak English well, so I would go back to my room every night alone and try to study. It was hard, but the generous scholarship from my government and the University of Utah was an opportunity I wanted to make the most of."

When Lin arrived at the U., she was already an exceptional dancer, having attended a seven-year arts program that combined high school and college, followed by two years in Cloud Gate Dance Theater, a professional Taiwanese dance company.

"Fen is an extraordinary graduate student, said U. modern-dance professor Abby Fiat, "a brilliant performer, spectacular choreographer and extraordinary teacher."

Lin's opinion of herself wasn't so lofty in those first few months, and she was caught off guard by American expectations.

"I had to learn to express my opinion," said the gracefully soft-spoken dancer. "It was hard, and not just because of the language barrier. In the Asian culture, the teacher won't even ask your opinion. But my classmates and the faculty here helped me understand that the dance world is big — there's choreography, dance history, dance writing and criticism — much more than just performing."

The teachers and choreographers Lin worked with in Taiwan may not have been interested in her opinions, but they instilled in her a depth of understanding about movement, so her performance is always energized, elegant and stirring. As a student in Taiwan, Lin would spend an entire day exploring a single gesture, a concept she employs in her own teaching at the U.

"A typical modern-dance step doesn't interest me — I like gesture," Lin explained. "I like to tweak the gesture so it conveys some message, but is not so obvious. I don't tell a story in my choreography, but it also isn't pure movement."

Lin provides an entry point to the viewer by using a recognizable gesture, but sparks surprise by adding in something unexpected.

"I'll use a [cultural] gesture, maybe something we all recognize as Italian [she shakes her fingers], but if I add a kiss into the middle of it, it changes the recognizable meaning," she said.

Lin was featured last year in Dance Spirit magazine, and her graduate thesis piece "Rouse" was nominated by the U.'s dance faculty for the American College Dance Festival. Along with auditions for national companies, and local projects, in the fall Lin will be an adjunct instructor at the U., something modern-dance department chair Donna White is very excited about.

"She brings to us a wealth of experience along with a mature artistic vision," White said. "We are keenly interested in following the development of her career."

This summer, Lin will be attending the prestigious Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Beckett, Mass., on full scholarship.

Eldon Johnson • Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Eldon Johnson has no interest in living anywhere else. At age 32, the jazz dancer's motivation for staying put is partly due to his recent promotion from principal dancer to associate artistic director of Odyssey Dance Theatre, Utah's most established jazz company.

"I'm committed to Odyssey," Johnson said, "but during the summer I like to go to L.A. and do some commercial work and pick up jobs. I have an agent who calls me if, for example, Beyoncé is holding auditions in Las Vegas this summer."

But Johnson is far more sophisticated than the switch leaps and spirit fingers some people associate with jazz. His 2002 piece "Soundtracks" signaled a change in approach for Johnson choreographically. Since that time, his work has been hard to categorize as straight-up jazz dance.

"Eldon has become so creative in his movement that now I'm learning from him," said Odyssey Artistic Director Derryl Yeager. "The choreography for his hip-hop version of 'Romeo and Juliet' was brilliant in capturing and visualizing the story line, while expressing the emotions through movement."

For that piece, Johnson used contemporary music instead of the traditional ballet score by Prokofiev. He also defined the conflicting families through movement styles — Juliet's family was visually represented by Latin jazz and Romeo's by hip-hop.

Also this year, Johnson choreographed for Emmy Award-winning choreographer Bonnie Story's "Expansion" concert. "He has an open mind that allows him to experiment with ideas and movement that are very creative and progressive," Story said.

Johnson hasn't ever taken an academic composition class. But his curiosity leads him to attend rehearsal after rehearsal for dances he hasn't even been cast in. And since Odyssey consistently brings in well-known guest choreographers, Johnson has learned at the elbow of Mia Michaels, Liz Imperio, Mandy Moore and many others.

"I think it's important for Odyssey to stay a jazz/theater company because that is our niche," Johnson said. "It's a fine line between entertainment and art, and concert-style jazz is different than video — the choreography has to be able to stand on its own. I think blending the linear quality of jazz and the organic nature of contemporary enriches both."

As someone who has successfully navigated that same creative course, Story can appreciate Johnson's creative struggles. "He always pushes himself out of his comfort zone, " Story said, "which keeps him growing as an artist and creator."

Johnson will be performing this summer with the Los Angeles-based company SoulEscape.