Finding Independence: An Interview with ODC Dance Jam’s Mia J. Chong


The ODC Dance Jam is a 13-member teen dance company based in San Francisco. Directed by ODC School Director Kimi Okada, Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson, and Rehearsal Master Dexandro Montalvo, the Dance Jam works with Bay Area choreographers to create and perform new pieces. The young men and women also manage all production aspects of their season. The Jam, now in its 17th year, prides itself on assembling a company of dancers united by their shared passion for the art form.

This year’s season, Interlace, includes a new piece choreographed by the Jam’s very own Mia J. Chong.

Interlace photographs by Sean Dagen

This rare and exciting opportunity for a young dancer and aspiring choreographer could hardly find a more suited candidate than Mia. From the time I’ve spent dancing with Mia, it is clear to me that her success is due in large part to the poise and professionalism with which she conducts herself. She comes into the studio every day ready to work; she is uncompromising in her pursuit of refined technique and open-minded in her approach to artistry. From ballet class to composition workshops, I can always find inspiration and guidance from Mia.

In preparation for the premiere of her first official choreographic effort, I asked Mia a few questions about her piece, “etc,” which reflects on identity and how it changes or stays the same over time. The work is set on four members of the Dance Jam to Mia’s own arrangement of songs by Etta James.


Cauveri Suresh: What drew you to this particular music? Did the ideas you had about labeling and identity motivate your music choice or was it the other way around?

Mia Chong: I wanted to use something with lyrics since my choreography right now is really based on musicality. I listened to a playlist of current and throwback-type tunes for about a week. I actually choreographed a complete piece that I had lukewarm feelings for to an edgy instrumental. But I eventually saw an interview with Etta James on YouTube and decided to use the base movements I had and start from scratch.

I ended up a lot more satisfied with the concept as a whole, since I mixed the music and edited the track myself. Etta James’ music is really inspirational to me, so adding snippets of her wisdom from old interviews just added a layer in my eyes. The ideas about identity came in as I set the piece on the dancers. I randomly mixed the music so that I could figure out what the piece was about with them instead of for them. As we rehearsed, I think we all started to really listen to what Etta was saying and figure out what it meant to us.

CS: What makes Etta so inspirational to you? Is it primarily her views on labeling and identity?

MC: I admire Etta because of her actual music. Her obvious vocal talents, charisma and perseverance through her tough life all contributed to her classic records. It’s dance-able, it’s memorable, you can sing along with it, it makes you feel something…the list really goes on and on. But personally, I admire Etta because when I listen to her music I hear fearlessness, finesse, edge, risk, change, and a whole lot of heart, which are all things I try to bring to life in my dance and choreography.

CS: That really comes across in this piece and in what I’ve seen of your other work. What first drew you to choreography and what continues to interest you about it?

MC: I was lucky enough to start making moves when I was really young at ODC. Over time, I’ve felt that choreographing helped me to be more confident and independent. Through training, we dancers often learn what’s right and what’s wrong and through choreography we can discover what’s interesting, regardless of “correctness.” Recently, I’ve started posting videos of my choreography to YouTube and putting my stuff out on social media, which has been a really interesting experience for me as an aspiring choreographer. It’s so easy to find inspiration through things that people share on the internet and it really interests me how people can bring concert-quality dance to such a wide audience using traditionally commercial social media platforms or popular music. I also take a lot of choreographic inspiration from taking class. It’s an opportunity to watch other dancers interpret movement and an opportunity to take influence and knowledge from the teacher. And I’d say the main reason why I choreograph is because I know what it’s like to be insanely inspired by someone’s work, so I hope to one day inspire someone to that extent.

CS: Tell me a little of what you noticed in the dancers you worked with (their interpretations, etc.) that helped form your piece.

MC: I noticed that the dancers did the movement I gave them not the exact way I showed it but in ways that I found interesting. I changed a lot of the dynamics after seeing what it looked like on their bodies. I made a small portion of the movement with the dancers so we could try to bring individual interpretations to the piece in a cohesive way. The week that I initially worked with the dancers was a really special time; we improvised a bunch, worked really hard, discussed, explained, questioned and laughed a lot!

Mia and her dancers photo by Eden Amital

Mia in rehearsal with her dancers

CS: Which choreographers have you been, as you said, insanely inspired by?

MC: I can’t say any particular choreographers inspire me because there are billions, but here are a few. My longtime loves have been and will continue to be the ODC women (Kimi, KT, Brenda), Ohad Naharin, Christopher Wheeldon, Alonzo King and Crystal Pite, to name a few. I really admire their work but I don’t consider my movement to be too similar to any of theirs; they inspire me to be an individual so I wouldn’t say I take direct influence from their various movement styles. More recently, I’ve discovered a sort of urban, edgy contemporary-hip hop style that I’m really taken with. I follow contemporary choreographers Erica Sobol, Jason Gorman, Cat Cogliandro (and others of that style’s growing community), and hip hop choreographers Kyle Hanagami and Les Twins, all of whom I’ve had the opportunity to take class from (which made me even more crazily inspired!). I also love Ian Eastwood’s work and I’m determined to track him down and take his class! As for choreographers I have regular contact with, D Montalvo is someone I really look up to and learn a great deal from literally every day; I consider him a mentor and main inspiration. These choreographers (and countless others) really inspire me. After watching or learning their work, I’ll listen to the music for several months, I’ll visualize the piece in my mind, I’ll get up and choreograph my own piece, I’ll start dreaming BIG, I’ll lose sleep thinking about the possibilities…I’ll be OBSESSED. But… my obsessive “fangirling” over such choreographers is really a gift because it means that I’ve been touched by someone’s work and now I’m inspired to learn and create more.

CS: Is this your first time choreographing with other people? What are some things you learned from that? What did you learn creating this piece? I know you talked about seeing how your dancers approached the material differently. Anything else?

MC: This is the largest arranged group I have set work on. I’ve taught my movement to larger groups in composition classes and for my independent projects but this is the most official piece I’ve made! I think the experience of choreographing with purpose and intention to make a piece is something that was new for me. I typically create moves, videotape them and put them up on YouTube or show them to my close friends. But creating moves with the idea of making a piece that would be performed for stage definitely made me think more about what I was doing. My dancers taught me a lot about how to be a leader without being excessively assertive, how to teach movement, and how to run a rehearsal or class so that it works out for everybody.

CS: What does this piece signify in terms of your growth or evolution as a choreographer?

MC: This whole experience has made me realize that I would like to teach more people my movement to see how they interpret it, because that was one of the highlights of the process! The dream is that one day I could travel a bunch, teach classes, choreograph and see that interpretive process all the time.

Mia’s new piece “etc.” will be performed alongside other new and repertory works by the ODC Dance Jam on April 5th and 6th at ODC Commons in San Francisco. Tickets available here. 

Cauveri Suresh has been dancing from a young age, and joined ODC’s Dance Jam last fall, after training primarily in classical ballet for nearly ten years. She is thankful to have found modern and contemporary dance, and to have worked with ODC’s faculty and students. She is a senior at COIL Charter school in Fremont and is looks forward to where dance will take her in the future.

First photo by Sean Dagen; second photo by Eden Amital