Shattering the Sugarplum Ceiling

Christopher Montoya-Grant and Joshua Grant

Late last month, while the rest of the nation broiled under scorching weather conditions, three dogs cavorted under the watchful eye of Chris Montoya in the fenced parking lot outside of Dance Conservatory Seattle. In the Puget Sound region, it was a pleasant day with a high overcast, light breeze and mild temperature, allowing Ayla, Taiyo, and Gizzmo to enjoy their break outside before returning indoors to resume their duties as the dance school’s very enthusiastic greeters.

   Inside, Joshua Grant was hard at work. It was just a couple of days after the summer solstice, but Grant was already immersed in reconceiving the story line and choreography for DCS’ production of a new spin on the classic “Nutcracker” ballet scored by Tchaikovsky. While bits and pieces of the new choreography have been performed previously, DCS will be presenting its first full-length performance of this uniquely conceived version of “A Nutcracker” this December.

   On this summer day, after ushering the dogs back into the office, Montoya and Grant both joined them on the floor and took the opportunity to do leg stretches while discussing how all of their previous professional and educational experiences in dance had led to their creation of this dance studio - in a large warehouse - in an industrial district - on the outskirts of Seattle.

   Grant began taking dance classes at the age of three and studied dance at schools throughout the southeastern United States before graduating from high school and moving to Seattle where he began his professional career in ballet, dancing for two decades in ballet companies including Pacific Northwest Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the globe-trotting, gender-skewing dance troupe that performs classical ballet repertory with a generous dollop of slapstick comedy.

   Montoya, who uses they/their pronouns, grew up in Arizona and began performing in professional jazz and ballet ensembles throughout the central United States. Eventually they, too, landed with “the Trocks” and danced on pointe, touring extensively through Europe, South America, Japan and Israel. It was a heady experience in many ways, but it took its toll on the body.

   “I was in physical pain daily and performing started to become a job rather than a gift,” Montoya said. “It was no longer bringing me joy and I always told myself that if it felt like work, then it was time to move on.” 

   In 2011, Montoya landed in Seattle and went back to school, earning an undergraduate degree from Cornish College of the Arts and an MFA from the University of Washington, and shifting their focus from dance performance to dance instruction.

   Grant had returned to Pacific Northwest Ballet, achieving the rank of soloist.

  The pair married in 2015 and Grant retired from performing in 2022.

  But the next phase of their careers had already been set in motion. During the fallow period of COVID, Grant and Montoya formed a business relationship with longtime dance practitioner Sierra Keith. Their time with the Trocks had opened them up to the world – both its possibilities, and its hazards. They dreamed up a dance school that would underscore inclusion, respect and safety.  

   “There’s room for all of us,” Grant said. “All ages, all shapes, all sizes.”

   And all identities, which could include everything from gender expression to immigration status.

   In fact, that’s the reason they located their studio in the warehouse in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood. The area is, to put it kindly, a zoning hodge-podge. It has a couple of streets packed with immigrant-run cafes, second-hand stores, social service agencies and cozy bars and bakeries. Several more blocks accommodate low-rent apartment buildings and century-old housing for blue collar workers, juxtaposed cheek-to-jowl with encroaching industrial development.

   All that was missing was a ballet school – and so Dance Conservatory Seattle was born.

   Currently the studio serves 60 regular students.

   “We hope to double in size by next year,” Grant noted, “But we’d really like to get to 250 to maintain the infrastructure.”

   DCS offers classes Monday through Saturday, for all ages and all levels of ability. In addition to Grant and Montoya as the in-house instructors, dozens of guest faculty are brought in to introduce students to new techniques and creative ideas. 

   DCS maintains an active social media presence, but Grant and Montoya also focus on the old-fashioned form of socializing – getting out into their neighborhood and introducing themselves, patronizing the local shops and eateries.

   They are proud to serve not only the LGBTQIA+ community, but also local residents who’ve never set foot in a ballet studio before. And with the Raymond C. Montoya scholarships (named in memory of Montoya’s dad), they can provide some financial support if cost is a barrier. 

   “We’re stripping away the cultural appropriation,” Grant said.

   So suffice it to say that the work they’re doing now to bring “A Nutcracker” to life isn’t going to result in your grandma’s spun-sugar version of the program.

   “I wanted to do my own Nutcracker to make a story inspired by, and in homage to, the Pacific Northwest,” Grant said.

   Rather than waltzing snowflakes, there will be dancing raindrops. And instead of the Second Act taking place in the Kingdom of the Sweets, the action will be transferred to an enchanted forest, whose dancing denizens include winter stars, forest fairies and gnomes, chanterelle mushrooms, a sasquatch, a unicorn and slugs!

   The Nutcracker, Grant proposes, will represent toxic masculinity. And instead of using Clara as the character through whose lens the audience will experience the performance, Grant is shifting the focus to Herr Drosselmeyer’s nephew, who will be portrayed as divergent and susceptible to bullying. But by the end of the ballet, he’ll understand his reason for being.

   These artistic co-directors are excited to infuse this classic with new relevance as well as a  Pacific Northwest aesthetic.

   “Dance gives us a language to be able to express ourselves,” Grant said. “Maybe to say what we can’t otherwise say.”

   “Life’s hard,” Montoya chimed in, stroking the head of a napping Gizzmo. “But dance brings joy and freedom.”


Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.



Barbara McMichael

Barbara Lloyd McMichael is based in the Pacific Northwest and writes about books and culture. She writes a syndicated weekly book review column called  “The Bookmonger” that focuses on Northwest books and authors. Her PR for People® Book Review is written exclusively for The Connector. 

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