For 15 years, Lisa Starry has brought spooky vampires, passionate lovers and aerial flyers to local stages, all of who know how to groove. As founder of Scorpius Dance Theatre, Starry has choreographed and directed dancers at worldwide performances, with her company of more than 20 dancers, as well as aerial performers.
The 44-year-old Phoenix resident is also helping shape the future of the local dance scene, as co-founder and Associate Head of School of Metropolitan Art Institute (Metro Arts). In-between her day job and coming up with new moves for Scorpius, she teaches modern dance for Scorpius and the public Wednesday nights at 6 p.m. in the studio at Metro Arts.
See her work this weekend as Scorpius Dance Theatre performs Catwalk, with music by Duran Duran, Friday, July 11 and Saturday, July 12 at Phoenix Theatre. Find tickets here. Starry explains how she started her company below, and you can watch a video of her name her five favorite reasons for living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
My parents moved here when I was 11. I went to Central High School, then studied at the Phoenix School of Ballet before going to California Institute of the Arts to get my degree in dance choreography. I was born in Dover, Delaware.
What’s your first memory of being interested in dance?
Being a kid and always making productions up, like puppet shows and dance contests. I never took dance class when I was little, but my mom gave me this big open room where I would turn on Donna Summer or Michael Jackson or Madonna and just dance.
I always loved dancing, but the moment I knew I wanted to be a dancer was my first dance class in high school. I signed up for it because I thought it would be fun and good exercise. I got in my leotard and tights, my teacher taught, and I thought, “Ohmigod, I’m in love with it.” That was the moment I realized I wanted to dance.
What’s your dance training like?
I was trained in ballet and modern, and that’s all I knew. Back in the day, in the ‘80s, hip-hop was such a foreign dance form. The studios I trained in didn’t even allow that style of dance.
I was very classically trained, but modern is what I fell in love with because that’s what my body did the best. Ballet is great, but I didn’t have a ballerina’s body. I loved the technique, but modern is what I was supposed to do.
How has your career evolved?
My last year at CalArts, I was the only female during that time in the ‘90s who got awarded a full scholarship to do an exchange program at London Contemporary School of Dance, which is now called The Place. For about five or six months, I went there with another student and danced all day. That’s all I did – I trained in Graham technique choreography and ballet.
I went back to CalArts, finished my degree up, graduated, and went immediately to American Dance Festival in North Carolina to train more. My plan was to move to New York and audition for companies. I had everything planned to stay with my grandparents, whom I didn’t really know that well. About two weeks before I was supposed to move in with them in New Jersey, my grandpa said my grandma was really ill, and it was best I didn’t go live with them. I had $300 to my name and no one to help me, so I came back to Arizona, very angrily.
I decided to make living in Arizona work, and got a job at Easley’s Fun Shop, which connected me to the entertainment field. I got a job with Eastern Onion Entertainment, with Chicago’s Funny Little People, a full-body puppet show. I went to Chicago, trained in all these dances, and came back here and was an Arizona rep and performed for weddings and birthdays and bachelorette parties. It was a good income, and at least I was staying busy.
I auditioned for Center Dance Ensemble in Phoenix and got into that. My boyfriend, now husband, David Starry and I were planning to move, but we got married before we moved, and I got pregnant. I left Center Dance Ensemble and started teaching at South Mountain High School, while also dancing with Semaphore DanceWorks and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. I then moved on to New School (for the Arts & Academics) and later became a founder for Metro Arts.
When I helped start Metro Arts, the main focus of the school was to have teachers who were working artists. Even though I was a dancer, it was really hard to be in a company because I had a child. Metro Arts supported me to start my own dance company. In 1999, Scorpius Dance Theatre was born, with Metro Arts as our resident rehearsal space.
What’s your typical week like?
I get here at 8:30 a.m. and work until 4. After 4, I am a mom, but work in Scorpius, between classes and working on the computer, getting things set up and booking gigs.
Wednesday evening is Scorpius night, where my company comes in. At 6 p.m., I teach warm-up for an hour and rehearse until 11 p.m. It’s exhausting, but it’s a part of me now.
With Scorpius, we typically do two to three large productions for our season – this year, we’re doing three. We have A Vampire Tale booked for two weeks in October, I’m bringing back my production David and Lisa in February, and we’re bringing back another old repertory show called Rock in June.
We also just got signed up with Jody Kaplan & Associates, a dance booking agent in New York. We met her when we performed for the Booking Dance Festival in Scotland last year, and she’s now our booking agent for national and international gigs. January is the big Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York, where she’ll have a performing space for all the companies she represents, where we may bring a few dancers out to perform.
How would you describe the Wednesday night Scorpius class you teach?
I teach a very standard old-school but fun modern class. The goal is for people to work their technique so they’re fully aware of and have a good time with the music. I’ll play around with some combinations toward the end, and it’s a very nice, clean class where you get a good workout and work on your technique.
What inspires your choreography?
My main inspiration is music. I hear the music first before I even think of a piece.
Also, movies inspire me, sometimes as simple as visualizations where someone’s looking away or at another actor.
What can people expect from Catwalk?
We’ve presented Catwalk two times, and the original theme was to connect local fashion designers with the company and use popular, well-known music on a big runway. It’s an upbeat, TV-style dance show.
For this Catwalk, I wanted to badly do a show with the band I love the most, Duran Duran. Duran Duran is so fashion-forward and always uses fashion models in their videos.The first act is all my vision of pieces I selected and how I see them done to Duran Duran music, or I’m appreciating the videos I love the most and being inspired by that. The second act is the tribute band Rio, which is going to perform all the old-school ‘80s songs. It’s almost like two shows.
George Johnson, one of the designers, came back, and one of my dancers, Bridgette Borzillo, is a designer, too.
What is it about Duran Duran music that you love so much?
I don’t know. I was 15 years old when they came into my world, and that was right after their Rio album came out and all the videos hit — it was like a boy band. I was in love with them and thought they were all cute, and the music would make me happy all the time.
People always say Duran Duran music makes you feel good and sexy and confident. They’ve always been a part of me, and whenever I hear a Duran Duran song, I think it’s a good luck sign.
How do you choose people for your company?
A lot of it is my relationship with them and how long I’ve known them and trust them. When I cast big roles, people are usually really dedicated to me and want to be a part of Scorpius in every which way. A lot of it is typecasting, too.
How would you characterize the Phoenix dance scene, and how would you say you stand out?
There are some older veterans out there. You’ve got Center Dance Ensemble, you’ve got Desert Dance Theatre, and you’ve got Movement Source. When those companies started, I was a teenager, and a lot of the people in those companies were my teachers. Those are more modern traditional companies.
When I started Scorpius, I started on the modern side, but I wanted to go the more edgier, entertainment side. I wanted to attract people who weren’t typically your dance audience. I wanted to entertain. Being trained in traditional modern didn’t mean as an artist that’s what I needed to do. That’s why I’ve added aerial and sexier burlesque and hip-hop styles, stuff you see on TV. I get people who come see us who aren’t intimidated, and that’s what I want.
What are your goals?
I was on the fence for awhile about how long I wanted Scorpius to go, because I get bored, and you always have to find new ways to get press. I was getting a little tired of constantly trying to prove, but things kind of flowed the right way. I was kind of interested in promoting myself more as a choreographer and getting my work out to more people, but I realized with the type of lifestyle and job I have, there’s no more room for that to happen.
Scorpius works perfectly, and I want to keep it like that. The goal is to expand the company out to the world more, with more touring opportunities. It seems the more we go out, the more we get respected back home.
I still would really, really love to make a full feature film about A Vampire Tale. It’s a huge task and a lot of money, but I am still keeping it in my mind and not letting it go. I would like to have it made before I turn 50. The biggest thing is money. I have to figure out if I can really make a film on an affordable budget. I want it to be high-quality and have good production.
What advice would you have for aspiring dancers or people who want to start their own dance companies?
Always start out doing your work first. Get in the studio space, get your friends together, put a piece together, make sure you’re happy with it, then go perform it somewhere. Audition it for a festival, or do it for someone’s party. Get your work out there first so you can grow and learn as an artist.
Starting a company is not necessarily the best thing you can do. It’s a big job, and there are a lot of parts to it. You have to decide if you want to run a company or if you want to just be a choreographer. Running a company is hard – you have to get a lot of support and grants, and it’s hard to stick around for people to start noticing and want to support you. Be patient, take your time, and decide what you want to do and where you want it to take you.
Why should people come to a Scorpius show?
They’re going to have a great time and be entertained. It’s a great place to go on a date or with friends, and it’s going to put a smile on your face. It might make you think, it might make you cry a little bit.
Why is dance an important art form?
We express with our bodies, and I think a lot of people don’t understand that. Mostly when dancers perform, people don’t understand the passion they have or why they do it or how hard they’ve worked to express that way. It’s a very low-respected art form, but it’s a very important, beautiful art form that will always be there. It’s a beautiful language, and I advise everyone to take a dance class to see how we feel.