“The Best Math Ever”: Designer Pilar Davis & the Art of RDT Dance
by David G. Pace
Pilar Davis admits to being an adrenaline junkie. She loves art and she loves live art, and you can tell. In a planning meeting late last year for RDT’s annual choreographer competition and fundraiser, she talked fast, expressively, and yet somehow maintained a gracious coherency as she factored in the needs and opinions of others.
Still, sometimes when you’re working with Pilar you feel like you need to wear a helmet.
Dont get me wrong: it’s not that RDT’s production manager and lighting designer is irratic or unreliable, but it does remind one that, for Pilar, the back-story to being a designer and theater “techie” was often fraught with adversity and even danger that shaped her into what she is today.
Pilar charactetrizes her personal journey as being refined in a sort of experiential kiln, the same way that the art about which she cares passionately is forged: “Good art is created by strife,” she says in an interview. “And art has to go through a … firing of sorts so that you don’t just repeat what you’ve been doing over and over again.” She is especially passionate about the performing arts because of its immediacy, and yet stage is “more susceptible to [a] trap by the nature of the work you do,” she says. “… It’s easy to overestimate the connection [to an audience] of a live performance and therefore easy to want to repeat the same thing again and again.” That, to her, is the death knell of good art. It is also one of the reasons she likes the revolutionary history of RDT, a company that is a library, yes, of the art form, but a company in which nearly 70 percent of its repertory is from living, contemporary choreographers, many considered “cutting-edge” in the field.
For Pilar this disposability of the performing arts is what propelled her to and keeps her in the theater. If you weren’t there in front of the stage during the performance, you will never see the same art again. “Anything can happen [in the theater],” she says. “It’s always going to be different [every night] … a fire can break out. An actor can break a bone on stage, the performance is a behemoth of a train … a monolith.” In short, the show must (and most always does) go on, so you put the pedal to the metal and just let it happen.
If anyone had the right to be a “drama queen,” it would be a production/stage manager like Pilar, tasked with designing as well as executing tech cues, putting out fires, keeping performers in line without ruffling feathers, and emoting with or without the back of one’s hand to the forehead. That adrenalized state is something she’s used to, some might see tempered by having grown up poverty-stricken as an only child in Ogden. “I didn’t believe I’d live past age 30,” she says when asked what plans she had had for her future as a young girl. She figured that “the demons, and the equipment I came with was going to finish me” at a young age.
That wasn’t to be the case. The hard times included navigating a mother who suffered from myriad psychological challenges left largely undiagnosed and untreated, and that often manifested in abusive, dangerous behaviors. And it also meant being viciously accused by a school teacher that the work Pilar had done was plagiarized because of her background. (Pilar’s mother was Mexican; her father, Japanese.) In many ways, the arts got Pilar out of a neighborhood (and a life) in which 35 kids (approximately) who once lived on her block are now either dead or in prison.
This was the kiln, she will tell you: this life in which virtually the only goal that might be set is simply to own a car someday. “I feel privileged that I didn’t make any plans,” Pilar tells me. This statement astonishes me. No plans? She is sitting in front of me with her half-shaved head and her ubiquitous, boffo attire and jewelery. (During our interview, she sported 25 pearls running up the outside of the curvelinear conch of her left ear.) Not to mention her myriad tattoos. “That way,” she says in her typical clipped, frenetic rate, “I didn’t know what ‘Pilar’ looks like. I closed my bucket list by the age of 26.”
In this sense, and as with the art form that she is passionate about, she is her own creation, largely fearless, having spent some of her days just surviving, sleeping in a car, and charging her mobile phone at a park pavilion. “The middle class doesn’t really know how truly far it is to fall before you become the [homeless] stereotype on the street corner … or die,” she says bluntly. “The mundaneness of it all is that the world keeps going [without you]. People don’t think past the scariest thing they can think will happen to them, like losing their house.”
In other words, the kiln can always get hotter, hotter than you can imagine.
This is not to say, however, that Pilar, arguably now at or near the top of her game as a contracted and freelance lighting designer and production manager, didn’t get a few breaks in her life. It just means that she is ferociously aware that they were not necessarily of her doing, though to know and work with Pilar is to undertand that she is of the type that siezes every opportunity voraciously.
One of those cracks in her universe was Weber State University where she decided she wanted to be an actor, but found mentors in dancers and production people like Tandy Beal, Eric Stern, and Ron Reinberg, the latter of whom convinced her to leave acting and facilitated an extended, often informal apprenticeship in lighting design.
Later, at the University of Utah, Penny Caywood, director of the Youth Theatre, took her under her wing and Pilar found herself building scenery and otherwise working the business off campus at Abravanel Hall and other Salt Lake arts venues, often for no pay. “I just kept showing up and no one asked me to leave,” she quips. She graduated with her bachelor’s in 2003.
Little wonder then that ZAP, Salt Lake County’s tax-based program for supporting the arts, recently brought Pilar on as a guest blogger to share her story of how public funding of the arts impacts youth in more ways than we can count, including, in a sense, saving a young girl’s life. She opens her post with, “My name is Pilar Davis. I work in the Performing Arts and I wouldn’t be here without ZAP.” (You can read the blog in its entirety here.)
Nor would Repertory Dance Theatre look and feel as good without Pilar Davis. And yet, in typical Pilar fashion, she deflects the contribution of what is clearly her virtuoso skills back to the dance company she has come to love. “No one can argue that RDT exists because of [Executive/Artistic Director and co-founder] Linda Smith who is safe, welcoming and open. The environment she’s created is full of care. RDT’s signature is an oddity for any company–repertory or otherwise–which can be meat grinders, and that is that RDT has an eye for the longevity of the athletes [dancers]. They have extremely long careers at RDT. It’s Linda. She always cares about people first and yet manages at the same time the high artistic standards the Company’s known for.”
RDT Sequence 1 from RDT on Vimeo. Lighting and production by Pilar I.
Pilar talks about the mind-set of all great artists and arts organizations: that art is not a simple equation of 1+2=3. Art is more than the sum of its parts. “When we’re together we make beautiful shows, and people cry when they see them,” says Pilar. “That sounds like the best math ever.”
David G. Pace is an author, editor and RDT’s Development Director since 2013.