Capital Dance Project Photo by Jason Sinn

Mirrored studios in the rear of the old brick school at 2420 N St.—now the E. Claire Raley Studio for the Performing Arts and home to the Sacramento Ballet—reflect the toned bodies of 20 dancers to the eclectic sounds of classical piano, EDM and taiko drum.

These rooms are normally empty this time of year. Sacramento Ballet is off season and the dancers commit to summer jobs or other activities to pay the bills and stay in shape.

Last year, however, a cohort of dancers decided to complete a long-desired goal to perform beyond the constraints of the Ballet, displaying their full personalities and potential in a one-day, crowdfunded and sponsored show.

The first performance in summer 2015 as the Capital Dance Project (CDP) was more than a success—it created a local artist collaboration phenomenon. As a result, this year Sacramento Ballet dancers have teamed up with the artist group behind the hugely successful Art Hotel to bring a two-night local art experience to the Crest Theatre called Behind the Barre: Made in Sacramento.

Capital Dance Project

Photo by Alex Biber

The CDP dancers run the gamut of putting on a show. They choreograph original pieces, raise funds, book the venue, design and make costumes, market and manage the collaborative process with visual, musical and digital artists from beginning to end.

Behind the Barre will be made up of nine original acts. One of those acts is choreographed by Kaori Higashiyama, who is also the main costume mistress for CDP and dances in five other acts.

CDP coordinator Alexandra Cunningham, who won’t be dancing this summer due to ACL surgery, says Higashiyama’s piece is one of several that stands out for her because of its personal connections.

Capital Dance Project

Photo by Jason Sinn

Higashiyama, who started dancing at age three in Japan after seeing her mother dance (her mother, now in her late 50s, still dances), says she was inspired by the music of local violinist-looper Joe Kye, and had him record a piece her grandmother used to sing to her when she was younger. Her choreography reflects her Japanese background, with a winter theme. The costumes for her piece have a personal touch—they’re made from scrap materials from her parents’ decorative fabric company in Japan.

“I’m very excited that the fabric was made by my parents,” Higashiyama says one afternoon over tea at Temple Coffee on K Street. “This summer, I visited my parents in Japan, and they had these old scraps, which were beautiful but were not going to be sold. But my parents don’t make clothing fabric. I wanted to make a traditional tutu but for the first time I used a stiff, unstretchy fabric, so it was really challenging. But I thought I will give it a shot and see how it goes.”

That attitude resonates throughout CDP, as the dancers leave their comfort zones to put together performances unlike anything they have ever seen or danced in, all in a matter of a few weeks.

Capital Dance Project

Photo by Alex Biber

Cunningham talks about another act excitedly, unsure how to narrow down which to highlight because each is so unique. Choreographer and dancer Julia Feldman, for example, is working with composer Andy Tan on an original composition with piano, violin and viola in which the dance movements showcase the music.

“Seeing the music come alive is how I describe her choreography,” Cunningham says of Feldman. “She focuses on full-body movement, showcasing the upper body and arms first and showing how simple arm movements are very expressive.”

Each choreographer envisions his/her own costume idea to match the piece, Higashiyama says. For Feldman, the inspiration included tulips with some tricks hidden within the costumes.

The tulip colors were hand painted onto the fabric by dancer and designer Jaime Orrego, who has been assisting Higashiyama while also rehearsing for several acts in the performance.

Capital Dance Project

Photo by Jason Sinn

“I love that a painter and a choreographer can get together and create a cohesive piece of art like this,” Orrego says of the CDP performance. He just completed his first season with the Sacramento Ballet and says he was excited to have an opportunity to stretch his limits and utilize his formal artistic training through this summer performance.

“This is a great way to introduce people who aren’t ballet goers to ballet, but in a whole new way,” he says. “It gives us dancers a chance to be more free and experimental.”

Behind him, dancers, including Higashiyama, are rehearsing for choreographer Christopher Nachtrab’s piece, which includes technological art in the form of motion sensor orbs that light simultaneously with the dancers’ movements. Nachtrab, who has danced with the Sacramento Ballet for eight seasons, leads the dancers as classical music plays in the background. The artistic vision is in collaboration with Kevin Zee, with VSP providing the technical goodies.

CDP has been the beneficiary of several useful donations and grants to help jumpstart this summer’s project. Sacramento Republic FC, the local soccer team, provided a $15,000 matching grant from their Glory Glory Sacramento Fund, which will benefit at-risk children, says dancer Shania Rasmussen.

Capital Dance Project

Photo by Alex Biber

One of the youngest Ballet performers, Rasmussen completed her third season at age 20 and is one of the choreographers and marketing heads for CDP.

“We are bringing 100 kids to each of our two shows and also doing outreach so if the kids can’t come to us, we will take the performance to them,” she says excitedly about the recent grant. “We want to make this accessible to everyone.”

Rasmussen, who also started dancing at a young age, says CDP has given her career opportunities that she doesn’t otherwise think should would find at her age without a degree. But, she and Orrego note, each dancer in CDP has a unique background, and each person’s skills have been utilized to make this performance a reality.

“We all do a lot of prep during the year, discussing funding and marketing, but the entire show is rehearsed and done in three weeks,” Rasmussen says. “We want the Sacramento art scene to grow and this is our way to do it.”

Like any artist, she, Orrego and Cunningham all note separately, their goal is to invoke an emotion in those seeing the art.

Photo by Alex Biber

Photo by Alex Biber

“When people think of ballet, they may think of Swan Lake or tutus, that it’s rigid and boring,” Cunningham says. “But as a dancer, you have to be able to do any type of movement possible. You have to turn and flip up in the air, and yeah, we can do that.

“But what you’re going to see here, it’s not going to be your traditional ballet, it’ll be more innovative,” she adds. “You don’t have to speak a certain language to understand it, everyone can understand body language.”

The best part? Tickets to this exclusive dance party on Aug. 26 and 27 are only $25, available through the Crest. To help the dancers pay their rent this summer, check out and contribute to their Crowdrise campaign. Open rehearsal schedules are available on their Facebook page. Check out Off to the Races Food and Wine Tasting at the Railroad Museum Aug. 20 from 6:30–8 p.m. for a sneak preview.

Catch The Capital Dance Project’s 2016 production Behind the Barre: Made in Sacramento Aug. 26 and 27, 2016 at the Crest Theatre, located at 1013 K St. in Sacramento. Doors both nights open at 6:30 p.m. with the show starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more info are available online at

    Nur Kausar

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    Born in Pakistan. Raised in Las Vegas. Settled in Sacramento. Muslim American Feminist. Housing California staffer. Submerge Mag freelancer.