Dancer and choreographer Alex Ung has come a long way since learning the box step back in high school in Iowa. Now, he and his Guild Dance Company will be performing in the Spotlight on Contemporary Ballet in the 2019 Seattle International Dance Festival.
Ung had practically reached adulthood before he realized that dance and choreography would become his life’s passion. “I was in college when I first choreographed on my peers and other students in the Iowa State Hip Hop Dance Club,” he said. “Choreography was something I felt I could do and had fun doing.”
But it wasn’t until Ung moved to Seattle in 2007 that he saw dance as a way to earn a living. “I got my first teaching job,” he said, “and that’s when I made a career move towards dance, teaching and choreography.”
With a foundation in hip hop, Ung began to explore other genres, including ballet and contemporary dance. “I discovered that as I was teaching my students technique, I could tell them what to do but I couldn’t connect with the steps physically,” Ung said. “My mechanical mind wanted to know why my students couldn’t connect one movement to the next, so I knew I had to learn what they were learning in order to understand.”
Ung has even stretched himself to try burlesque a couple of times. “I was cast in fun, over-the-top pieces so I didn’t have to take my role seriously,” he said. “It helped a lot to have really good, comfortable people to do it with, but it was a lot of fun and I’d do it again.”
After teaching at Bainbridge Ballet for nine years, and working with Jerboa Dance, Ung felt he had built the skills to launch his own dance company. “Dancing with Jerboa opened my eyes to what smaller dance companies were like in the Seattle dance scene,” he said. “To be able to have an audience coming back and talking about your work, you needed to be unique, challenging and entertaining. Jerboa was definitely that and more.”
First, Ung took the opportunity to test his skills. “I created a piece for a Jerboa show,” he said, “and that’s when I felt I could actually work with professional dancers and create art.”
Ung also slowly built up his self-assurance. “I got advice from peers, other dancers, and non-profit advisers about the best approach to starting,” he said. “I was able to gather a group of really supportive and knowledgeable board members and support staff, led by Doug Fullington, who had confidence in me and my abilities. From there, I asked dancers to perform in my first show and we started to create.”
The result was Guild Dance Company, which has presented The Lead In and Immigration Stories, as well as creating new work to soon be presented at SIDF. “I wanted to take on the challenge of creating a contemporary ballet because that’s where I felt like I could play with my artistry but also incorporate my hip hop background,” Ung said. “It’ll have some comedy, because I love making people laugh, and hopefully something you can groove to.”
Ung feels this new work expresses his unique take on dance. “Was it my style, my choreography, or my storytelling?” He pondered. “In the end, I felt it was my style that set me apart from others.”
But despite these satisfactions, running Guild Dance has not been without challenges. “One of the things I promised myself when creating the Guild was to pay the dancers as much as I could, because I know how challenging it is to be a performer and get paid very little,” Ung said. “Most of the dancers have day jobs for income, which limits us to having rehearsals on late evenings or weekends. I’m part of the group that has a full-time 8-to-5 job and jets to rehearsals from 6 to 10.”
Finding sufficient dance studio space has also been difficult. “There are quite a few dance troupes in Seattle and a very limited number of rehearsal spaces within a reasonable distance,” Ung said. “I’ve been fortunate to have YAW Theater as a steady venue for rehearsals and shows and plan to stay there as much as possible.”
Mitigating this, Guild Dance has benefited from an enthusiastic corps of dancers. “Luckily, the dancers have been very accommodating of our rehearsal schedule and willing to bounce around between a few different locations,” Ung said. “But a more central location for my dancers who use public transportation would be ideal.”
As a donation-based non-profit, Guild Dance continues to seek community support. “We were fortunate to have a corporate sponsor donate to fund our traditional costumes for Immigration Stories,” Ung said, “but we’re always looking for additional sponsors and donors for future work.”
That corporate investment in Immigration Stories will yield more results, as Guild Dance is scheduled to perform that show again on September 14 at Bainbridge Performing Arts. “We’re planning a multicultural experience and have invited other community cultural groups to join in the evening,” Ung said. “I’ll also be creating a piece with the students of Olympic Performance Group as part of the opening number.”
Ung then hopes to bring Immigration Stories to a wider audience. “I’d like to tour the show to a few cities, including Iowa, where we would perform for the Tai Dam community,” he said.
Despite this desire to tour widely, Ung also hopes to become more rooted here in Seattle. “I’d like to open a dance studio and get back into teaching young students,” he said, “and helping shape young dancers into performing artists who could move into a pre-professional company with the Guild and eventually become Guild dancers.”
Expect to see Ung and his work around town quite a bit: “I’ll have a busy summer,” he said, “teaching musical theater classes at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Summer Course and choreographing at Seattle Children’s Theater.”
Seattle International Dance Festival runs June 8 to 24, 2019, at various locations on Capitol Hill and around Seattle. SIDF’s Spotlight on Contemporary Ballet runs June 18 and 19 at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle.