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In Retirement, Jean Isaacs Steps Back

Creator of Trolley Dances and longtime artistic director of San Diego Dance Theater is set to retire this month after 24 years with the company.

Jean Isaacs, dancer, choreographer, instructor and longtime artistic director...

Credit: Courtesy of San Diego Dance Theater

Above: Jean Isaacs, dancer, choreographer, instructor and longtime artistic director of the San Diego Dance Theater, is pictured in an undated archive photo. She is set to retire Jan. 31, 2021.

At the end of January, choreographer, educator and the artistic director of the San Diego Dance Theater, Jean Isaacs, will step back from leading the company after 24 years. Isaacs, who just turned 77 this month, is ready for rest.

"The last couple of years have been very stressful," Isaacs said. She had struggled with her health as well as running a nonprofit during the era of AB-5, which changed the way independent dancers were classified. Then add in the past year's layered crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement — San Diego Dance Theater, like many dance companies across the country, crafted statements of support and examined their own practices. Additionally, Isaacs suffered from several bouts of non-COVID-related pneumonia as the months progressed.

"I was just not handling the stress well," Isaacs said.

Running a nonprofit dance company in a major city in 2020 is a far cry from her early days. Isaacs began dancing when she was eight years old. "In my little hometown in New England, we had a little dance studio, there's a little Italian family in a little working class town called Mansfield, Massachusetts and the DeLutis School of Dance. It was fantastic."

Photo credit: Courtesy of San Diego Dance Theater

Dancer, choreographer and artistic director of San Diego Dance Theater Jean Isaacs is pictured in an undated archive photograph.

Eventually, after becoming more serious during college, she was mentored by Denise Jefferson from the Alvin Ailey Dance Studio in New York. Jefferson would drive Isaacs and small groups of other promising dancers to take masterclasses across New England, and that individualized attention and broadening of her horizons is what got Isaacs hooked as a dancer.

"That whole mentoring is part of dance," Isaacs said. "You don't really learn it without another person in there correcting you. And so I've also invested a lot in being a mentor for people, encouraging people who had talent," Isaacs said.

Isaacs got into choreography early on as a way of writing the parts she wanted.

"That was always the way you could get on stage," Isaacs said, laughing. "Making a solo for yourself."

Choreography stuck, long after she needed to write her own solos. She also began teaching at UC San Diego shortly before joining San Diego Dance Theater, and taught with the campus' Department of Theatre and Dance for 25 years. But choreographing and working to find ways to bring dance outside of a traditional dance performance — such as in theater and stage plays — is what drove her most.

"I'm not as interested in guiding people as I am in creating things for them," she said, pointing to the ways her focus and practice evolved as she aged. "I still like teaching but I'm not in very good shape. I hurt. My body hurts."

Ten years ago, Isaacs created a program with SDDT called "Aging Creatively," which brings dance into groups of students age 65 and up, many of whom were not dancers when they were younger. It's a project Isaacs is proud of, and misses. "That's been very rewarding," she said, but because of the pandemic this program has been on hold.

One of Isaac’s crowning achievements — and perhaps what she is synonymous with in San Diego — is the development of Trolley Dances 22 years ago.

Trolley Dances is an annual program that gives SDDT choreographers and people Isaacs brings in from across the country — Monica Bill Barnes for example — to create pop-up style dances at trolley stops around San Diego. Ticket holders ride the trolley and follow the route, but anyone can stumble upon a dance-in-progress and watch.

RELATED: Trolley Dances: A Truly San Diego Adventure (Archive)

The traveling, site-specific element is inspired by guided cultural tours in Europe. But it's the less glamorous side of dance production that was primarily behind the drive to build Trolley Dances: budget.

"I was spending all the money on paying for the theater," Isaacs said. "Literally, you pay more for the theater than you do for the dancers."

Creating dance in communities is another important part of the project for Isaacs, lifting the obstacles and sharing the arts across the region. Despite the stresses, fatigue and occasional bitterness of the last few years of her career, Isaacs remains someone who worries about ways to make sure dancers get paid and performances are seen by as many people as possible.

Photo credit: Manuel Rotenberg

Jean Isaacs, who is set to retire Jan. 31, 2021, teaches a group of dancers in an undated photo.

Among the highlights of her career is her choreography work in other disciplines. "I'm just sort of more inspired by language right now than I am by music," Isaacs said.

"Some of the work that I really have enjoyed is working in theater — not musical theater but dramatic theater, working with playwrights who write in a portion of their play that has movement in it," Isaacs said. "If there's a director that's using one of Caryl Churchill's plays I try to get them to hire me."

She hopes to continue this work, separate from the stresses of running a nonprofit. And in the future, there are plans for a celebration of her career when dancers and audiences can gather again. But for now, she is looking forward to spending time with her seven grandchildren and getting a lot of well-earned rest.

"Right now I like getting up in the morning and spending two hours reading the paper," she said. "But, ask me again in a year."


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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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