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Originally published Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 5:06 AM

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Tonya Lockyer: ‘powerhouse personality’ turns Velocity around

When Velocity Dance Center hired Tonya Lockyer as artistic director in 2011, the organization was in debt and in crisis. Two years later it’s operating in the black and thriving.

Seattle Times arts writer

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Choreographer Mark Haim, a longtime member of Velocity Dance Center’s board of directors, vividly recalls the moment when Velocity was poised to select Tonya Lockyer as its new artistic director in 2011.

Up until then, he told his fellow board members, Velocity’s artistic director had been trying to keep up with the dreams, demands and desires of the board.

But if the board hired Lockyer, he told them, the roles would be reversed.

She is going to be pulling us,” he said.

That prediction has proved true. In the two years since Lockyer assumed the helm of Velocity, she has eliminated Velocity’s $214,000 debt and taken its budget into the black. She’s added programming and reached out to local choreographers to make sure they have the kind of artistic home in Seattle that will help them thrive here.

She’s also helped produce a wide range of experimental work unlike anything else being presented in Seattle — for instance, a site-specific meditation on schizophrenia and homelessness that Ezra Dickinson staged at Seattle’s Greyhound bus station.

“I often consider myself a curator of experience,” says Lockyer, a powerhouse personality with a bright, can-do intensity that stirs people into action.

“She has the head on her shoulders to figure stuff out as she goes along,” says Lane Czaplinski, artistic director of On the Boards. “She’s an artist and a scholar.”

Success not guaranteed

None of Velocity’s current success was a given, however.

In May, 2011, when Lockyer took the helm, the organization was in crisis. Its biggest problems were triggered when it lost its home in Capitol Hill’s Oddfellows Hall after the building was sold in 2007. An intense capital campaign allowed Velocity to move into sleek new quarters on nearby 12th Avenue in March, 2010. To an outsider’s eye, an invigorating new chapter in Velocity’s life seemed about to begin. But behind the scenes, things were frazzled to the point of unraveling.

“Part of the problem,” says Haim, “was that everybody was completely burned out from two or three years of transition ... like when you move and you finally get into that new place, and then you end up having a lot of boxes that you don’t unpack right away.”

Someone needed to come in and finish the job successfully. And Lockyer, says Haim, was the one to do it.

Not that everyone was optimistic about her chances of pulling it off.

Lockyer, in a recent interview, recalls that one of the first things she was asked by someone involved with the move was: “Would you like this place to die slowly or quickly?”

Lockyer had some moments of panic, but would have nothing to do with that defeatist attitude. Two things helped her grapple with Velocity’s troubles. One, she says, was her Newfoundland upbringing, where it was taken for granted that everyone would pitch in if the community was in need. The other came from her dance training.

“Sometimes when you’re in a crisis,” she explains, “you have to really quickly get at the core of something. It’s like when you’re falling over as a dancer. You have to find that center of balance really quick ... Don’t waste a good crisis.”

First steps

Lockyer’s career in dance began in a one-room studio in St. John’s, Newfoundland, with a lesson her grandmother paid for. “I was four years old, and I definitely remember being in a hallway about to enter that room and thinking to myself: Ah, they’re about to recognize I’m a dancer.

At 9, she was accepted as a boarder at the National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto. Some strong culture shock ensued — and not just from sudden immersion in an urban environment.

“In the culture that I grew up in in Newfoundland, the arts weren’t isolated from life,” she says. “If someone was a great storyteller, that was a really honored gift in my community. If you were a great musician, that was a really honored gift. ... The idea of these art forms that were somehow elevated out of life was really alien.”

The hierarchy of ballet did not sit well with her either: “I really wanted to be part of collaborative processes and democratic processes.”

That desire ultimately led her to New York, where she studied with Merce Cunningham. She prized the training she got, but came to realize that Cunningham’s purely abstract work wasn’t a good fit for her. “It wasn’t giving me a way to process or investigate or research or communicate what it means to actually live in the world now.”

From New York, she moved to Boston, where she found a more like-minded artistic mentor in Paula Josa-Jones. Five years later, in 1998, she moved to Seattle to work on her own projects.

The lure of the Northwest

“There was this exciting new generation happening in Seattle,” she said. “There was this company called 33 Fainting Spells. There was Michele Miller and KT Niehoff, and they’d opened this space called Velocity.”

D-9 Dance Collective especially impressed her: “All these dancers getting together and creating a collective repertory company? Amazing! ... They didn’t sit around and wonder: ‘Why isn’t anyone hiring me?’ ”

Eventually Lockyer landed a spot as Velocity’s program manager (2005-2007). After a break for graduate school at the University of Washington, she was persuaded in 2011 to apply for the directorship of Velocity — and got the job.

Within a year, Velocity’s earned income was up 123 percent and its donations were up 145 percent. Those increases allowed the budget to grow 75 percent. The number of people partaking in Velocity activities more than tripled to roughly 18,000.

“In 2012,” Lockyer says proudly, “we commissioned and developed 27 new works, and introduced nearly 90 new works of dance performance and cinema.”

“Virtually every performance,” Haim notes, “has been sold out — and that hasn’t happened in a while.”

Velocity’s influence on the local arts scene extends beyond the walls of the studios on 12th Avenue. Lockyer has been on staff at Cornish College of the Arts and performed at On the Boards, and Velocity dancers and choreographers have appeared at theaters and college campuses across the country, as well as locally. Seattle artists particularly benefit from Velocity’s involvement in the SCUBA National Touring Network for Dance — a kind of dance exchange program that links Seattle to Minneapolis, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Talent flows the other way, too: Visiting artists who come to Seattle to perform at OtB or the UW World Dance series often offer master classes at Velocity. Even Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers with an interest in contemporary dance (Andrew Bartee is a recent example) turn up from time to time at Velocity.

While Lockyer believes there’s a pressing need for Velocity to grow (“We turn people away for our summer programs because of the size of our studios; we turn people away from performances”), she’s adamant about keeping its expenses under control.

“Velocity has thrived in the Recession for many reasons,” she says, “but one of them is that we’re a very flexible and nimble organization, and we have been functioning without a lot of overhead.”

The question she repeatedly asks herself is: “What value are we creating? Not only for everybody who walks through our doors, but also for our neighborhood.”

A motto posted on the wall at Velocity reflects this local-community focus. It reads: “Don’t try to change the world. Try to change Seattle so it’s the envy of the world.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com•

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