For Donald Sales, a great dance performance all boils down to honesty.
“I think what draws an audience in is not your physical ability to execute dance moves, that’s nice to see, but what really draws one in is when you’re absolutely honest and vulnerable on stage and not trying to be someone else,” Sales said.
He compares it to an old couple dancing by themselves: “It’s not technical, but it’s beautiful. Honesty is the key.” This is something he strives to achieve with his new dance company, Project20.
On top of his exciting dance career, Sales is also a successful music producer. He has worked with Akon, Kardinal Offishall, and K-os. You may not think that hip hop and contemporary dance are related, but Sales explained that they come together in unexpected ways. “I’ll be sitting at home working on a song, listening to a ton of music and think ‘that would be great to choreograph to.’”
Another example of his two worlds colliding happened during a performance at Ballet BC. “I was performing Carmen — the pas de deux at the end — and in the middle of the song I thought it would be great to sample in a hip hop song.” Who knew Carmen and hip hop music had anything in common?
“I was performing Carmen [. . .] and in the middle of the song I thought it would be great to sample in a hip hop song.”
Donald Sales, Project 20
His idea for the future is to have Diplo or Major Lazer compose for his company. Having access to the music industry can be very useful for a choreographer, but working in these two different art worlds can be exhausting.
At Ballet BC, Sales said he would rehearse with the company all day and then head to the music studio at night. “Whenever it gets really heavy I try to separate the two,” he said. “I’ve disciplined myself to do that over the years.”
Project20 will have its debut at the Chutzpah Festival with Sales’ new work, gr33n. He began work on gr33n last year, and has had time to think about manipulating the space in the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre. “It’s been nice to take our time,” he said.
To create this piece, Sales began with the title and a rough idea of what it could be like, working with the dancers to develop it. “I knew I wanted to call it gr33n — it’s my favourite colour and there are all these things it represents.” There are four dancers in the show, and they represent four different aspects of the colour: envy, greed, illness, and greenhorn.
The dancers put a lot of themselves in the show. Sales said that during his career dancers never had the opportunity to express themselves, they just had to do what they were told — he wants to let his dancers have some input.
“They’ve been training for so long. They know how to point their feet, but they forget how to be themselves.”
Donald Sales, Project 20
“With my dancers I like to sit down in the space and we talk; I ask questions. They draw pictures of their life story, and then we have to dance it,” he says. Sales values their collaboration very highly: “I couldn’t have choreographed it physically myself if I wanted to.”
Having the dancers put their own ideas and emotions into the work also adds the element of honesty that Sales finds so essential. “I say just be human, be yourself. I give them clear pictures to think about — it’s very vivid and literal and helps them break away from formalities. They’ve been training for so long. They know how to point their feet, but they forget how to be themselves.”
After Chutzpah, Sales hopes to take gr33n on the road. “I don’t plan to create another work for a few years,” he said, “this deserves a life on the road.”