Backhausdance in FLOCK’s The Barest Echo | Credit: Shawna Sarnowski

It’s no easy feat keeping a dance troupe together, but Jennifer Backhaus, who founded the award-winning Backhausdance in 2003, is thriving. Indeed, on March 27, the 12-member Orange County-based contemporary-dance company takes the Irvine Barclay Theatre stage in a program of four works that tell stories about breath and breathing, love and relationships, and humanity and artificial intelligence.

“You have to be a little crazy, a little nutsy, to keep a company going,” said Backhaus, whose work has also been commissioned and produced by, among others, Los Angeles Ballet, Utah Metropolitan Ballet, and McCallum Theatre. “But I’m really lucky,” she added, “because I’ve had great dancers with me for a long time. Part of it is that I’ve also had great people I’ve worked with, and it keeps us all going. It’s super tough, though, and honestly, I don’t think I would have been able to keep doing this if I didn’t adore them so much.”

Jennifer Backhaus
Jennifer Backhaus | Credit: Jack Hartin

There’s certainly a mutual lovefest going on with Temecula Presents, where Backhausdance has been in residence since 2022, giving annual performances at the Old Town Temecula Community Theater. It was in that 354-seat venue last November that the troupe first presented the program it will reprise at the Barclay, which included three premieres, as well as a restaged version of Backhaus’s 2006 piece Love and Other Possibilities, which the choreographer said is “fun, light, and very dancy.” 

For this program, Backhaus said she knew she wanted to involve the choreographic duo FLOCK, who have created The Barest Echo for the company. “Alice Klock is in Portland, and Florian Lochner is from Germany,” Backhaus explained. “We knew what to expect in terms of approaches, aesthetic, and movement. We also appreciated their artistry and their ability to be collaborative.”

Exploring the physical and metaphorical power of breath, FLOCK’s dance is set to music by various composers, including Handel and Christoph Willibald Gluck. “The work was a challenge but not too far afield from our wheelhouse,” said Backhaus, who has snagged multiple Lester Horton Awards from the Dance Resource Center of Los Angeles for her choreography, with her troupe also having received several performance and design awards.

And the other pieces on the program? Peter Chu, who has danced with award-winning choreographer Crystal Pite, made Portals of Being, which was inspired by AI and is set to music composed and performed by Djeff Houle and Alex Ebert. Backhaus noted that she’s been “watching Peter’s career and seeing him set work on people. We thought it would be a good match, [and] it all worked out.”

And Amanda Kay White, associate artistic director and a founding member of Backhausdance, choreographed I Am Dangerous and Blooming. Backhaus explained that “this is the first season that Amanda’s not dancing with [the company]. She was a wild card, and it’s about her experiences not dancing this season. It’s an ensemble piece for five dancers, and it’s not overtly narrative but definitely impressionistic.”

Backhausdance in Peter Chu’s Portals of Being | Credit: Shawna Sarnowski

Backhausdance recently had a gala at The Pacific Club in Newport Beach, and Backhaus said the event raised more than $100,000 (the company’s annual budget is just under $400,000). “That keeps the dancers dancing,” she said. “We are part-time, but we have a robust educational group that performs a lot in schools.”

Backhausdance’s commitment to providing extensive education and community programs has been integral to the company, with those programs reaching thousands of students, teachers, and emerging, advanced, and professional dancers, as well as families, adults, and seniors, each year. Backhaus was recently on a nine-school tour, Dance for Kindness, in the Coachella Valley. “It’s not only important, but we’re also doing something good,” she noted.

For the last several years, Backhausdance has performed site-specific works inspired by a monthlong residency at Sherman Gardens in Corona del Mar. In June, the company will be in residence for six weeks at Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum. “Those [earlier works] were immersive pieces where we developed a dance based on the gardens and where people wandered through,” Backhaus recalled. “For the Bowers project, it will mainly be focused on their big courtyard.”

Backhausdance in Jennifer Backhaus’s Love and Other Possibilities | Credit: Shawna Sarnowski

In addition to running her company, Backhaus, who is 52, is dance scholar in residence at the Temecula Theater. “I also do preshow talks for our company and others,” she said. “They’re very kind to us, and they treat us well. It’s a nice relationship, and it’s enabled me to have an anchor performance. We can also bring guests in and create works.”

And talk about scholarly: Backhaus began teaching at Chapman University in 1998 and became a full-time faculty member in 2012, though she said she’s stepping back to adjunct status in the fall. “It’s a lot of work, and I’ve been doing the company and was full-time at Chapman for 12 years. It’s too much for me now, [and because] the company’s doing great, I feel like I need to spend more time developing it to the next level.”

When asked if she has kept in touch with some of her students over the years, Backhaus laughed. “There’s so many, I can’t even count. Three of them were Chapman students [and] were just Kens on the Oscars. Another one’s on So You Think You Can Dance. So yes, they keep in touch.”