Jean Isaacs opens the door to intergenerational dance


By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Choreographer Jean Isaacs, artistic director of San Diego Dance Theater, has been a presence on the local dance scene for almost 40 years. Last year, at age 67, she decided to explore the possibility of incorporating older dancers into her work.

She began with a weekly class for people over 60 called “Aging Creatively with Dance,” which included journaling as well as movement. With no time to teach another class herself, she turned it over to Yvonne Gagliardo, a Dance Theater associate who uses Isaacs’ iconic dance moves. The class quickly attracted about 20 attendees from all over the county, some of them longtime dance students who could no longer keep up with the usual classes.

Isaacs saw the potential for an interesting public performance, and started rehearsing with the seniors in their second hour of class. Along the way, she joined forces with Kira Carillo Corser, a photographer and videographer who had just received a San Diego Foundation Creative Catalyst Grant to create a multimedia piece for Dance Theater.

The results will be on view this weekend at the world premiere of “The Door is Open: An Intergenerational Dance Project,” a full-scale production at City College Saville Theater, featuring 12 dancers ages 60-84 (two men and 10 women) sharing the stage with nine of Dance Theatre’s young pros.

Among the senior dancers is Rosemary KimBal, a Cardiff artist who specializes in Zen brush painting. She happened to be taking a class at Dance Theater’s home in Liberty Station when Isaacs was starting the Aging Creatively program.

“I’d known Jean for years, but had no clue I’d ever be dancing with her,” KimBal said. “After about six months of classes, when she said we were going to be in their next performance, I thought: In your dreams! But once I decided I’m in, I’m totally in!”

The piece includes changing digital projections, interviews with the dancers, and a score by Isaac’s husband, Steve Baker, which mixes meditational music, pop songs from the 1920s and ‘30s, plus ‘60’s rock-and-roll. It runs about 66 minutes — a significant number for seniors, whose first full year of Medicare comes at age 66 — and the older dancers are onstage the whole time.

There are several duets pairing young and older dancers. “I love mixing it up like that, and the dancers do, too, ” Isaacs said. “It’s interesting to see the different bodies, not just the young, slim ones we usually see.”

What’s different about choreographing for senior dancers?

“They keep forgetting the steps!” Isaacs said. “So we make it part of the show!”

“The Door is Open” promises to be a unique event for audiences of all ages.

And there may well be a sequel next year. But Isaacs has other intergenerational projects in the works.

“For now, I’m taking a break from choreography,” she said. “I’ve got two grandbabies coming this month and my other daughter’s getting married in June. So I need to pay attention to that!”