Seattle Culture

Healing in Motion

Dance artist Lavinia Vago explores the power of movement through the art of dance

By Rachel Gallaher June 21, 2024

A digital artwork featuring a silhouette of a person in rehabilitation, merging with a realistic image of a person undergoing physical therapy by lying back in a shallow pool of water under blue lighting.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

For millennia, movement has been an integral part of the human experience. From location changes to athletic achievements and emotional expressions, the body in motion took on an ever-changing range of meanings as it traveled the world. Like many, dancer and performance artist Lavinia Vago started exploring movement early — through ballet.

Growing up in a small town outside of Milan, Vago, who says she was a “very active child,” took ballet and gymnastics and participated in sports until she was around 11 or 12 when she decided to focus on dance. “Everyone has different entry points to dancing,” she says. “For me, it was always an escape — a way I could really find and ground myself. From the beginning, I felt the healing properties of dance.”

Lavinia Vago

Photo by Stefano Altamura

At just 16, Vago moved to Milan solo to pursue the art form. The following year she enrolled in a student exchange program and landed in Las Vegas, which she describes as “the biggest culture shock of my life.” She attended typical academic classes in the morning, dedicating her afternoons and evenings to studying and practicing dance. At the end of the summer, she returned to Italy to finish her last year of high school and then applied to a handful of colleges. Vago attended Mills College in 2007, then transferred to Cornish College of the Arts in 2008, where she entered the dance program.

“I had this really strong focus,” she recalls. “My goal was always to figure out how to create a living off dancing. It’s been a challenge and a journey for the past 17 years.” Vago didn’t know anyone in Seattle but found a vibrant, creative community full of cultural spaces, dancers, and dance makers. Venues like Velocity Dance Center and On the Boards were resources for viewing and participating in the scene.

During her second year at Cornish, Vago, who had come to focus on modern and contemporary dance more than ballet, met fellow Cornish student Kate Wallich through mutual friends. That summer they became roommates, bonding over a shared interest in dance — specifically movement outside of formal, structured technique. (They would go on to work together, forming the now-defunct dance company the YC in 2010. In 2020, Vago became the director of programming for Dance Church, the movement practice class Wallich also founded in 2010.)

“The two of us have always been different. We have very different personalities,” Vago says, “but we’re very similar in that we’re hungry to explore and create. We both had an attraction to create something that wasn’t there, in a sense rebelling against the status quo and the company systems we saw in the dance world at that time.”

“We think in similar ways, even if our outward personas are different,” Wallich agrees. “Lavi always had more of a fire behind her ass to be a dancer. I’m very entrepreneurial, and I always wanted to build something. While I was in Seattle growing my projects, Lavi was like, ‘I’m going to go and get a job. I’m going to New York.’ And she did. But she always came back to Seattle.”

By 2015, Vago had been dancing professionally for about five years, making a name for herself collaborating and touring with Sidra Bell Dance NY, Vim Vigor Dance, Saint Genet, RUBBERBAND dance group, and Tom Weinberger, among others. Around this time, she started thinking beyond performing other people’s work.

“I am a very slow maker. I like to spend a lot of time researching and thinking intentionally about what I want to make.”

“I started wondering what else there was for me,” she says. “I was curious about dance beyond being a body on the stage and interested in what else I could find in dance and use to help people and society. At this crucial point, I did a residency through the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, digging deep into how else I can use dance to effect change.”

Around this time, Vago started exploring the world of dance therapy (she would eventually train to become an instructor for the Dance for PD program, which offers dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease). “From the beginning of my career, I’ve always seen how dance can be a tool for personal healing, release, and liberation of the body,” she says.

In 2017 Vago left New York, returning to Seattle as things were picking up with Dance Church. In addition to her work with Wallich and Dance for PD, Vago started dabbling in choreography to investigate ideas around queerness, joy, community, empathy, altered states, and endurance. Pushing the body to its limits — often seen in multi-hour durational dance and installation performances — was, and still is, of interest to Vago.

“One of the worlds I inhabit is the underground rave scene,” she says. “Raving is a form of practice. Being on the dance floor for eight, nine, or 10 hours, what that does to the mind and body, without drugs, is take you to another world at the edges of dance.”

She talks about the collective energy of dance parties, the shared vibrations, and experiences on the dance floor. “I wanted to take that seed and figure out how to create something from that.”

In 2019, Vago debuted her first solo show, NOESIS X, an intense work full of jerky, highly intense choreography set to brooding electronic music. She seemed to be fighting a fleet of unnamed demons on the stage — perhaps people, memories, or experiences from her past. Since NOESIS X, Vago has presented several pieces in Seattle, including FLAMES AND BABES at the Seattle Art Museum (in conjunction with the museum’s 2020 Flesh and Blood exhibition) and BBB in the basement of Seattle’s historic Coliseum Theater (in collaboration with OVERKILL and Heather Kravas).

NOESIS X

Photo by Stefano Altamura

On May 3 and 4, Vago’s latest choreographic venture, FKK, premiered through Velocity Dance Center’s Made In Seattle program. Staged in the Georgetown Steam Plant (“I’m interested in moving away from the proscenium stage,” Vago says), the three-hour piece served as an ode to the punk underground scene, community found on the dance floor, and the cathartic nature of movement. It’s also, according to Vago, a departure from her previous work.

“I would say this is a new chapter,” she says. “I’ve been doing solo-inspired work — this is me in collaboration. I’m thinking of choreographing now as more of a container for different people to explore common themes, but also the craves and desires they have within their own art practices.”

Collaborators included dancers Carlin Kramer and Emma Wheeler (OVERKILL), artist Baso Fibonacci, musical artist Ha Kyoon, and others. The performance consisted of three one-hour segments. The first was an onsite installation that guests could view as they arrived, and the second was a one-hour performance. The third was a one-hour DJ set. Vago has been working on the piece for several years.

“I am a very slow maker,” she says. “I like to spend a lot of time researching and thinking intentionally about what I want to make. The first two to three years were a personal, introspective process of deconstructing a lot from my past. 2020 was a big year. I feel like a lot of institutional ways of thinking collapsed, especially in dance — what is beautiful, what works, and what the body is supposed to look like. I had to spend a lot of time decolonizing those truths.”

And even though she’s been working on FKK for years, Vago believes that there is a special kind of magic that coalesces when people come to watch dance, especially durational work. In that sense, the piece won’t be complete until performance night.

“I’m excited about pushing into this direction,” she says. “I love the delicate relationship between the audience and performers and what can happen when they are all in a room together.”

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