If you’ve ever seen a ballet, a fight scene in a movie, or even the Blue Angels soaring overhead in perfect synchronization, you’ve witnessed the product of choreography. Choreography is the art of composing a precise sequence of movements to achieve a desired outcome. Most frequently, it is attributed to the composition of dance.
Milissa Payne Bradley is a local choreographer—an artist who composes such sequences of movement. A Benicia resident, her work has been featured across the Bay Area and has gained national recognition, with Huffington Post touting her as “the e.e. cummings of ballet.”
We sat down with Payne Bradley at Farm and Flour to pick her brain about life as a choreographer, her creative process, and so much more.
BM: Where are you from, originally?
MPB: I’m from a small town called Keansburg. It’s located in between Fresno and Bakersfield—a very small agricultural town right next to Selma, California, the raisin capital of the world.
BM: And what brought you to Benicia?
MPB: I came originally to dance for Oakland Ballet. The Bay Area has always been a place I’ve been attracted to—that meeting of art and culture—and Benicia is a microcosm of the Bay Area, but in a tranquil setting. I knew that it was a place I wanted to stay.
BM: How did you start choreographing?
MPB: I knew that’s what I wanted to do from an early age. I wanted to be the teacher. I wanted to be the person crafting and cultivating the steps. I went into my professional dance career as a way to build my reputation and my resume to give me the clout to one day go out and choreograph. I always had this bigger picture in my mind.
When I started working at SOTA, San Francisco School of the Arts, the director there, Elvia Marta, was a big advocate of my choreography—always pushing me to do more. I started using my resources and calling my professional friends, asking if I could choreograph a dance on them. At first it was just my friends being kind and volunteering their time, and now my reputation has grown to the point where I’m getting commissions with different dance companies and I’m taking different works to New York, Virginia, or Santa Monica, and getting more opportunities. Getting my name out there.
BM: Whose choreography inspires you?
MPB: George Balanchine, Crystal Pite, Bronislava Nijinska. Those are the ones that stand out.
BM: What else inspires your choreography?
MPB: So many things inspire me. Architecture, textures, nature, music… My family really inspires me. We’ll sit around talking about “well, what would make a cool dance?” And I think I’ve always been, as a female, an advocate of femininity and feminine power. So, there’s always an undercurrent and an underlying question of “where is the strength of women in this?”
BM: What is your mission statement as an artist?
MPB: My mission is to find a marriage and a connection to use the classical ballet vocabulary in an accessible way. To bring dance to a larger generation of, hopefully, new dance lovers. I think dance is a form of communication as well as literacy and I think it’s a way for us to speak to someone. So, just trying to find a way to speak the language of dance to everyone.
BM: What is your next project?
MPB: I’ve got a dance film that I’m working on that I’m really excited about. The dance is based around water, some of it will be set in Benicia, but it’s also about a journey of someone, a growth. How the tide ebbs and flows and brings in what you need and lets go of what you don’t.
BM: You’ve just started a doctorate program. Tell us about that.
MPB: It’s a program through Stanislaus State for a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. I’m going to go through the community college emphasis (rather than K-12), so hopefully that will enable me to one day move up to a higher administrative role—maybe a provost or a dean, or vice president.
BM: And what is your goal in this higher role?
MPB: Advocating for art. Because right now it’s a luxury. Not everybody gets to enjoy art—and by art, I mean performative and visual. It’s something that kids have to be immersed in outside of school because school is more focused on academic standards, testing, etc. I want to help to bring art into schools because it’s just as important as math or English. Because we as artists know that art is essential to creativity and thought, because we are involved in it, but we had what is now considered a luxury. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Payne Bradley is scouting locations here in Benicia as the set for her upcoming dance film, expected to debut in early 2020. To find out more about her work and background, please visit her website: Milissapayne.com.