Josh Murry-Hawkins can dance anywhere. Just about any surface will do. He’s danced in libraries, art galleries, community centers, city sidewalks, beaches, forests and rivers.
“I’ve danced to music and no music, I’ve danced to live music and canned music, I’ve danced to spoken words, I’ve danced with props and no props. I’ve been on concrete floors and I’ve been suspended from the ceiling. I’ve broken all the barriers,” he said.
“Dance can be accessible and part of the community. It doesn’t have to be this elitist thing” that requires expensive tickets and a proscenium arch, he said.
Murry-Hawkins has taken an unusual approach to launching Washington Dance Creative, which he calls Vancouver’s first professional dance company. There are many dance schools and studios and “a huge audience of students and families” interested in dance performances, he said — but to spread the word about a new pro-level dance group, the first thing he did was hit up local photographers.
“People like looking at pretty pictures,” he reasoned. “This was a way to build a portfolio and gain some exposure.” Photographers love studying dancers and their athletic bodies, he knew, and they also love landscapes. So Washington Dance Creative has gone out on numerous photo shoots in iconic local spots like the underbelly of the Interstate 5 Bridge (where dog walkers by the dozen stopped and asked what all the jumping around was about) and Frenchman’s Bar Park (where Murry-Hawkins and troupe member Amara Malcom escaped summer heat by dancing halfway submerged in the Columbia River).
“Dancers will do anything for a picture,” he said.
The group has worked with many local photographers on these fanciful outings, and Murry-Hawkins said the agreement is that everybody gets to share the results for their portfolios and websites — the individual dancers, the new dance company and the photographers.
“Why be stingy?” said Murry-Hawkins, who views Washington Dance Creative as part of a collective local project to make Vancouver an artistic destination, not just a dormitory for artists who work in Portland. Murry-Hawkins said he’s tired of complaining about that; he’d rather push for great things — like Washington Dance Creative’s “A Jazzy Revue,” Dec. 28 and 29 at Magenta Theater.
“Now that we’ve got a portfolio, the next step is knocking down doors,” he laughed. Magenta Theater was glad to help, he said, but because that spacious theater is so busy and booked, it took months to come up with a date — the weekend after Christmas.
“I’ll take anything,” Murry-Hawkins said. “It’s a start.”
Murry-Hawkins grew up outside of Ashland, Ore., in a conservative family where he simply didn’t fit in, he said. He was 11 years old when he started making fun of his sister as she got ready to dance in a talent show; his mother pointed out that he “picked up on her moves easily,” and showed real talent, he said.
Murry-Hawkins dabbled in dance at Ashland studios — with his mother encouraging him and his father never saying a word — and then got more serious, with scholarships to study with the Milwaukee Ballet in Wisconsin and with the Joffrey in New York, where he “basically danced my butt off” every day of the week, he said. Without his knowledge, his mother sent a film of him dancing to the renowned dance school at Brigham Young University, where Murry-Hawkins was admitted.
“It was an honor and it was a fun scholastic challenge,” he said, but after one year he decided that BYU, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, just weren’t good fits for a 19-year-old gay man. He felt burned out and thought he might work as a professional fitness trainer — but Mom intervened again, insisting that he’d miss dancing. She was right.
Murry-Hawkins auditioned into BodyVox in Portland and toured Europe; he helped found Eowyn Emerald and Dancers, led by a 2003 graduate of Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, which stole the show at the biggest annual arts gathering in the world, the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. And he guest-starred in various local “Nutcrackers.”
He was busy dancing on many stages, he said, and it was backstage where he met his future husband, Vancouver musician Sammuel Murry-Hawkins, the founder of the nostalgic Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra. They’re a good couple because they’re both “very ambitious,” Murry-Hawkins said, and devoted to that same project: putting Vancouver on the performing-arts map.
In addition to Mom, it was one of his early dance teachers who convinced Murry-Hawkins of his own potential. “Teachers have helped me have this wonderful life,” he said, so teaching has become a passion for him, too. He’s the dance director at Riverside Performing Arts, which also offers music and acting. “They are just completely immersed in all the performing arts,” he said. “It is my home.”
Washington Dance Creative is a troupe of six, Murry-Hawkins said, and at the moment it’s project-based — that is, it works on projects like short films and community events. Its first performance was during the summer, inside the Providence Academy building, for The Historic Trust’s 100th anniversary commemoration of World War I. That’s just the sort of blend of community and dance that Murry-Hawkins has in mind, he said.
Now, he’s getting ready for “A Jazzy Revue” at Magenta. His husband and a small group will play “gold standards” of jazz, he said, like “Sing Sing Sing” and “Fever” (which was the first song that ever made Murry-Hawkins feel “hot and bothered,” he said).
“It’s a huge goal of mine to always have live music,” he said. “That’s how dance began. It’s our bodies feeling the music.”