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EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE: Dancer forms company with the broadest of missions

Tristian Griffin / Photo by Ryan Bruce 

Tristian Griffin’s success grows partly from his openness to the wide world of arts. The Kansas City-based dancer-choreographer, who established his own company in 2019 (Tristian Griffin Dance Company), didn’t even begin his performance career with dance. He and his brother explored modeling as youngsters, until someone suggested to them that they should develop other talents as well.

They became involved in competitive dance, with skills nurtured at Priscilla & Dana’s School of Dance. “Me and my brother went at it together, being each other’s encouragement,” Tristian said recently, as we chatted at the back of UMKC Conservatory’s White Recital Hall. “It was mostly jazz and tap, but it was a good competition studio.”

From there, Tristian began studying with Michele Hamlett-Weith at the Legacy School of the Arts, where the emphasis was decidedly different. “It was primarily partnering and ballet, and we were doing it every single day. … I had never done a double tour in my life, and I was 15 or 16 already.”

Tristian Griffin is shown here choreographing in the studio with dancer Claire Buss.

Starting late in ballet had its advantages for Tristian, who at 32 is at his prime as a dancer, “because I didn’t get burned out early on.” Michele urged him forward, recognizing that he could go far.

Having begun high school at St. Thomas Aquinas, he transferred to Raymore-Peculiar High School when the family moved south. There he spent half-days at school and the rest of the time in the dance studio.

Michele, with her eye for extraordinary talent, became his “studio mom,” he said. “I have her to thank for the fundamentals of my understanding of technique and ambition. … She also fed me the information that I needed in order to grow as an artist and as a dancer.”

Tristian became so serious about dance that he attended a summer intensive at Virginia School of Arts and ended up staying through the following school year: studying dance while managing schoolwork on a harrowing schedule. Returning home, he also enrolled at Kansas City Ballet School while completing high school.

By then it was clear he would attend college on scholarship, and he chose Texas Christian University with its renowned dance program. There he studied with Elizabeth Gillaspy, Nina Martin, Jessica Zeller, Li-Chou Cheng, and others. “They had the depth that I needed in order to grow,” he said, “to continue checking off the boxes of what I needed to learn.”

Michele Hamlett-Weith and Garth Fagan both played critical roles in Tristian’s career.

After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in ballet with a minor in English, Tristian returned home for the nerve-wracking “limbo” as, he calls it, between training and professional contract, “which can be the hardest thing, because … you start to contemplate, did I actually waste the four years I was at university?” Michele stepped in again, contacting someone she knew at Garth Fagan’s prestigious dance company in Rochester, New York. The next thing Tristian knew, he was flying east to meet the pioneering choreographer.

Garth hired him almost immediately and put him to work. This national forum opened doors for Tristian, with performances at New York’s Joyce Theatre, Los Angeles’ Ebony Repertory Theatre, and other significant venues. “It was a great experience,” Tristian said. “I learned so much, and I learned it so fast. I had to be mentally and physically sharp. That’s something I learned from Garth: Always be ready.” After three and a half years with Garth’s company, Tristian joined a Washington D.C.-based ensemble called Company E, with which he danced at Kennedy Center.

Tristian presented the first version of his Palimpsest in June 2019 at a previous Charlotte Street Foundation studio, with dancers Allison Harsh, Caroline Dahm, Laura Fiatte, Tiffany Best, Tori Knox, and Jeremy Hanson. / Photo by David Pugh

Since then, he has traveled twice to the mecca of summer dance, the Jacob’s Pillow Festival in Massachusetts: first with Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company and later as a Jacob’s Pillow Choreography Fellow. During the latter residence, he choreographed a two-man piece, The Unexpected: Within the Red Lines, an expanded version of which receives its premiere this August 10th at the Gem Theatre. The emotive pas de deux deals with the complexity of Black-brown relationships, especially the platonic connections between males.

Tristian has danced with Springboard Danse Montreal, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Metropolitan Opera (in Nico Muhly’s new Marnie, a featured Met in HD broadcast of 2018), to name a few. Locally he has also danced with Owen/Cox Dance Group and Störling Dance Theater. He has choreographed for Charlotte Street Foundation (as an artist-in-residence), KC Fringe Festival, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Spring to Dance/St. Louis, Malashock Dance, Regina Klenjoski Dance Company, Newport Contemporary Ballet, Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, and numerous other organizations.

Tristian, here with Emily Mushinski in a work for Owen/Cox Dance Group, has performed for most of the companies in the Kansas City and Lawrence areas. / Photo by Kenny Johnson

In 2019 Tristian created the first version of a work he calls Palimpsest, which in many ways represents who he is as an artist today. This piece, which has since evolved into Palimpsest II and Palimpsest III, was above all a collaborative effort. First performed at the Charlotte Street Foundation’s Capsule studio, it included contributions from visual artists, poet Glenn North, and musicians Calvin Arsenia and Pheenix Leeor (Marleena Willingham). (Among Tristian’s other regular collaborators are composer Philip Daniel, visual artist Wolfe Brack, and poet Jose Faus.)

In each iteration, Palimpsest is altered according to the contributors. Each is site-specific and morphs according to the space, which is usually “a room full of art,” he said. The subject is, in part, the many ways in which marginalized communities have had to erase their identities in order to survive, “for instance Native Americans … what they have gone through and how they have adapted who they are in order to blend into a new society.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the piece, with its special resonance for Black Americans, has had a considerable impact on our community, and on Tristian. “It wasn’t until I made Palimpsest that I knew I wanted to start a company,” he said. “It was sort of an epiphany for me.”

Laura Fiatte and Trey Johnson performed Tristian’s Palimpsest I in June 2019. / Photo by David Pugh

The goal of the Tristian Griffin Dance Company is simple. “All the things I’ve done in Kansas City are attempts to start conversations: conversations that could change the world.”

Tristian’s work as an artist reflects an ongoing restlessness, a reluctance to be restricted to one single wavelength. His choreography includes ballet, jazz, modern, and even the detailed abstraction of William Forsythe, the storytelling of Garth Fagan, and the boundary-shattering boldness of Trisha Brown.

“I told myself from the jumpstart that I do not want to isolate my voice to one channel,” he said. “I want to be able to find each frequency and spectrum in the room, and to tune into those. … as opposed to hitting one thing and staying within that one channel.”

At the same time, he “has never really envisioned a big grand scheme to anything. I take things as they come.” Life throws surprises, “but when good things come, I stick with them.”

—By Paul Horsley

Cover photo of Tristian Griffin in mid-air by David Pugh. 

For information about Tristian and his company, go to tristiangriffin.com or find him on Instagram (@tristian_griffin or @tgdanceco) and on his YouTube channel (youtube.com/@tristiangriffin8504).