Kaitlin Webster did not necessarily stand out as the "edgy one" among her cohort at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.
But in 2011, when she made a trip to Chicago to audition for four of the most prominent dance companies in the city, she quickly realized how dissimilar she was from the other female dancers. "I was taller and bigger than anybody else. I had tattoos and really short bleach blonde hair at the time," Webster said with a grin when remembering those early audition experiences.
Often dancers with "unique" appearances are exactly what dance companies and choreographers are looking for as a way to reflect our multifaceted world on stage. Apparently that was not the case for those Chicago companies at the time. In one particularly painful encounter, after making it to the final round of an audition, the director of a company walked right up to Webster, looked her up and down and said in front of everyone, "I don't know what you think you are doing here, but we obviously have an aesthetic. You should probably leave." Webster walked out sobbing. Lest people thought discrimination and humiliation were no longer a part of certain dance cultures and communities, Webster can attest that those practices are, unfortunately, alive and well.
Even so, Chicago is a big city and Webster is an incredibly powerful dancer. Undeterred, she moved here anyway and was hired within two weeks by the contemporary hip-hop fusion company Chicago Dance Crash. Known for its large-scale, narrative concert productions, Webster spent the next six years cutting her teeth as a professional dancer with the ensemble. These were definitely formative years for her as she navigated the sometimes thrilling, sometimes frustrating rollercoasters of company dynamics. Looking back Webster says, "I took what I could get and was grateful. Did I feel like I had a place to speak? Not necessarily. But the people were really nice."
In 2013, Chicago Dance Crash made "Cotton Mouth Club," in which Webster was cast as a prostitute for the second time ( the first being her debut performance in "Gotham City" ), and personal politics started to conflict with a sense of ensemble pride. "Again, I played a whore. Women were either 'the pining wife' or 'the whore' and that got under my skin" Webster said. "That's when I started making my own work in Chicago."
Webster did not part ways with the company right away but she began to more actively invest in side projects with local independent dance makers and in 2014 self-produced "Hydra," her first full evening of original choreography. After that, Webster's role as a choreographer seemed to kick into high gear. In 2015, she made a duet entitled "One Too" in Chicago Dance Crash's annual production, "New Alaska," served as rehearsal director for the company's 2015-2016 season and made her screen debut as choreographer and star in Open TV's Full Out, a five-episode web series written by Julie Keck about a closeted dancer returning to dance-life post injury. ( Full Out was featured in Windy City Times recently. )
Since leaving Chicago Dance Crash last December, Webster has devoted more time to her work as a dance teacher with young adults at the Studio North Academy of the Performing Arts ( SNAP ) in Wilmette. "I love teaching," she said. "That's a place where I feel my queer politics can reign free. … I get to talk intelligently about dance with them. … Just speaking about what our bodies are doing, and accepting what they are doing and feeling empowered in that. That feels really important."
Webster continues to grapple with the expression of her personal queer politics in choreography while using historically heteronormative and codified dance forms like jazz, ballet and contemporary techniques. The task of connecting these potentially conflicting frames of reference is especially daunting now because she is on the brink of launching her own dance company, Highfalutin Dance Theater. She is deliberately being patient with herself through the development of the company and the debut of its first major work in order to make sure she gets it right. "I don't want to pump out work," she said. "I want time to question myself."
What can we expect from Highfalutin Dance Theater? "I like storytelling and I definitely like to be 'cheeky,'" Webster said. "I love pop culture and pop music. I want to be connected to the audience and I want it to be fun because that's kind of who I am." As far as casting her company of dancers, Webster will certainly not replicate the experience she had years ago. "I think auditions are pretentious and unnecessary. I know a lot of dancers. Part of my mission statement is to represent dancers who are not represented as often."
"I want strong humans with strong technique," she added. "Whoever's doing my movement shouldn't look like me. They should look like themselves at their best."
Webster will begin working on her company's first major production during a residency at Links Hall this July. For updates and performance information, visit HighfalutinDanceTheater.com .