This story appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of NEW Magazine (now JCI).
Ten minutes before the third night of last winter’s Jersey City Nutcracker is set to begin, a pint-sized Statue of Liberty throws a tantrum when she can’t find her torch. Two girls dressed as gingerbread cookies roll around on the floor and hundreds of other kids -- or what appear to be hundreds -- zip this way and that through Grace Church Van Vorst’s Parish Hall.
Then Samuel Pott enters, seemingly unfazed, always in control. At six-foot-four, Pott towers over the children -- and most of the adults. The kids snap to attention and say, “Hello, Mr. Pott.” He smiles back, then goes into the green room to give his dancers a last-minute pep talk. Just before curtain, he welcomes the audience and introduces the show, an adaptation of the E. T. A. Hoffmann Christmas classic set in an alternate-universe Jersey City. The lights dim, Tchaikovsky booms through the speakers and the magic begins.
Nutcracker is the crown jewel of Nimbus Dance Works, a nonprofit dance organization that started as just a few bold choreographic ideas from Pott, its founder and artistic director. Today, Nimbus employs seven dancers and three apprentices and performs for more than 12,000 people each year. Its JC Grooves after-school dance program teaches more than 2,000 seventh graders annually and Nimbus dancers perform for every seventh grader in the city’s public schools each year. This summer, the company opened a brand-new school at the Barrow Mansion. Starting tonight, Dec. 21, Nimbus is rolling out the third incarnation of Nutcracker, which has featured several pros, including Pott and his wife, PeiJu Chien-Pott, and hundreds of local kids since 2010.
The audience favorite caps off a year that featured an impressive program of dance works from around the world including the ethereal “Danzon,” by Cuban choreographer Pedro Ruiz; a new work by emerging Turkish choreographer Korhan Basaran; and "Scarabs," choreographed by Pott and involving Hong Kong composer Samson Young and New York-based visual artist Nicola Lopez, who constructed large set pieces the dancers interacted with during the performance.
Nimbus’s performances stand out in Jersey City, which is home to tons of visual-arts venues and has a small but fairly established theater community but not much dance. Yes, The Kennedy Dancers, a Heights-based nonprofit, has 35 years under its belt. And yes, there is new blood coming in with the Your Move Modern Dance Festival, Insurgo Stage Project (which will soon take a hiatus) and Armitage Gone!, run by famed choreographer Karole Armitage, which starts its season out of Mana Contemporary in January. Still, top-level dance here has been difficult to come by. With its emphasis on quality and youth outreach, Nimbus stands to make a powerful impact on the community at large.
Pott, 36, didn’t start formal training until he was 19 -- which is crazy, considering most dancers begin before they hit the double digits. Even more surprising is that the New York City native spent most of his youth playing sports, drawing, painting and sculpting. While studying fine art at the University of California at Berkeley, however, his focus shifted when a friend gave him tickets to an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance.
“I was amazed and decided to get my nerve together to sign up for a modern dance class. I didn’t know what to expect at all. I thought it was going to be like Flashdance with a room full of women with Velcro Reebok sneakers, leg warmers and headbands,” he says. “Instead, it was mostly women in leotards with bare feet. The teacher put me on a two-week trial period -- if I could hang with the class, they’d officially let me in.”
He made it, and as he realized dance was a combination of his two passions, art and athletics, Pott fell in love. “All I knew is I wanted to dance and dance and get better,” he says. Pott danced for the Oakland Ballet Company in California for 10 years, then was hired by the American Repertory Ballet in Princeton and New Brunswick, which prompted his move to Jersey City in 2004. He joined the Martha Graham Dance Company in 2009.
During time off from American Repertory in 2005, Pott decided to get some dancers together to perform some of his original pieces. They called themselves Nimbus Dance Works, like “a rain cloud... moving into environments and creating change,” he says.
As a choreographer, Pott is inspired by music, experimentation and the joy of movement. He also likes to incorporate historical tales, as in “Letter Home,” about a World War II soldier’s letters to his young wife -- and audience interaction, as he did in 2006’s “Memo,” a breakout piece that showed him his side project could be something more.
“It’s unique in that it involves performers drawn from the community who are not necessarily trained dancers... the audience provides their own memories which are interacted with on stage,” Pott says. “We realized that if could create dance that involved the community, if we were able to ask them to participate and contribute, it made the experience more rich and meaningful for everybody.”
Pott took on the daunting task of starting a nonprofit by finding allies in the community and building his troupe of dancers over the years. Now, Nimbus boasts a board of directors with art-world heavyweights like president Betsy Sobo, who along with her husband, Joel, has led nonprofit dance companies throughout the state. The company’s artistic clout helped attract about 120 dancers vying for two slots in September; the dancers who got the job had to prove they weren’t just skilled, but also passionate and just as excited about performing at Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York as they were for patients in the Jersey City Medical Center lobby.
Fanny Gombert, who danced with Nimbus from 2010 to 2011, spoke fondly of everything from performing “Arabian Dance” in Nutcracker to working with 5-year-olds who played the “Cookies,” their equivalent of Mother Ginger’s Bon-Bons.
“He hires the very best dancers and is very good at directing us,” she says of Pott. “And we don’t just get to dance, we also get to share our passion with the community.”
It’s Nimbus’s investment in its hometown that has attracted strong support. Fundraising, ticket sales, performance fees, grants, sponsorships from organizations like the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Grace Church, and partnerships with groups like the Jersey City Board of Education help raise the more than $250,000 Nimbus needs to pay its performers, teaching artists, crew and staff (comprised of Pott, who until recently did not receive a salary, and managing director Ivet Bandirma). And of course, there are always costumes, stage equipment, venues, rehearsal space and more to buy or rent. Somehow, Nimbus -- and Pott -- have managed to do it all.
“It’s an intense amount of work -- rehearsal schedules, grants, negotiations with partners, marketing... And then someone’s got to go out to the warehouse and schlep costumes back and forth or make sure the dance floor is down correctly,” Pott says. Eventually, juggling Nimbus, his regular job and raising his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter with Chien-Pott, Sofia, became too much. Working with his wife both at Martha Graham and Nimbus (where she teaches, takes photos and runs their website) also has its challenges. “At times [Nimbus] takes over our lives and we need to take a step back and forget about it,” Pott says.
“He usually accepts my opinions, but sometimes not, and then we fight,” says Chien-Pott. “But I always feel lucky that I have a husband with the same interests and vision... I’ve learned so much from Sam and from being Mrs. Nimbus.”
Pott quit working for Martha Graham in June. Now, his modest income from Nimbus and his wife’s salary (she still works for both companies) keep the family afloat. He has no regrets, saying, “This is a real calling for me and I wanted to really focus on it 100 percent.”
Local kids stand to benefit the most from Pott’s work. For example, Pott says High Tech High School junior Luis Garrido, who starred in the first two Nutcracker productions, started as an “uncoordinated, goofy sixth grader” in JC Grooves and became an “extremely talented performer [with a] real passion for the arts.”
“It was one of the most rewarding productions I’ve ever been involved with,” says Garrido, who comes from an artistic family. “In my second year, the work was harder and more laborious, the production was even larger than the first and the payoff was that much more quenching and emotional after the final bows.”
The company offers young people the chance to learn more about the arts “and become passionate about something creative,” Garrido says. “It’s also a common ground for our community to come together and support each other. I’m positive that many [others] would say Nimbus has made a profound impact on their lives as well.”
Your Move festival co-founder Avianna Perez agreed and called Nimbus a “gem for everyone in this city.”
“I get really excited when I hear about modern and contemporary dance being taught in public schools. It’s not something I had growing up and I think it is so valuable,” she says. “Dance is one of the best forms of physical education -- it keeps you fit, allows you to explore artistry as well as athletics, and helps foster confidence and self-empowerment.”
Indeed, the city is Nimbus’ top priority.
“It’s great to perform here and build more momentum,” Pott says. “There are a lot of dancers in Jersey City and there are lots of youth here that need access to this type of involvement in dance. We see ourselves continuing to build the scope of our organization and partner with national-level artists and organizations -- or even international. We’re looking to build a nationally recognized dance company based right here in Jersey City."
For more information, visit nimbusdanceworks.org.
Performance photo coutesy by PeiJu Chien-Pott; rehearsal photos by Mickey Mathis
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