Audiences last spring at New York’s Joyce Theater could have been forgiven for doing a double take when a nearly naked dancer sprinted across the stage before the start of Larry Keigwin’s Runaway. “Larry egged me on,” says dancer Kristina Hanna. “It was meant to look like backstage at a runway show. There was a girl onstage getting her hair done, and he had me run across as if I was looking for my costume.”
Hanna—who Keigwin hired right out of Juilliard two years ago to join Keigwin + Company—commands attention even fully clothed. Spunky and elfin, the 24-year-old radiates energy, her movements fluid yet punchy. “She has a nice balance between a percussive, rhythmic attack and an effortless ease,” says Keigwin.
Directors and teachers praise Hanna’s physical and intellectual energy. “She’s a real dance thinker,” says Ara Guzelimian, a Juilliard dean and one of Hanna’s mentors. Ironically, Hanna’s dance life started with a fluke: “When I was 4, my best friend went to take a dance class, and I just happened to go along,” she says. It may have been the only accident in her career. Terri Newman, a teacher at The Dance Shoppe studio who worked with Hanna for a decade in Waterford, Michigan, notes from the start that Hanna had a deep commitment. “She was very, very focused at a very early age,” says Newman. “She never waited for me to give her a correction; she took any correction given to anyone in the class.”
Newman’s was a competition studio, and Hanna excelled, piling up awards. But Newman stresses that her ability went beyond technical prowess. “She always understood there was more to it than just kicks and turns.” The competition world taught Hanna a range of styles, but it was not until she arrived at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy that she got her first exposure to modern dance. She was named a Presidential Scholar for the Arts in 2005; she also studied with Laura Glenn at the White Mountain Summer Dance Festival.
Hanna entered Juilliard after Interlochen. It proved a different experience. “My first year was really, really, really hard,” she says. Teachers had students start over from scratch. In one class, she recalls being taught how to roll over; in another they relearned tendus.
But Juilliard also gave Hanna the opportunity to sample a wide variety of choreographers, including Ohad Naharin and Mark Morris. “Some things are like a second skin, and some don’t fit,” she says. “But you realize it’s all valid experience.”
Keigwin came to work with the students her senior year. “On day one, Larry had us improvise in a circle to different qualities he’d call out,” she says. “And I just thought: If I could do this every day, it would be like play.”
Keigwin, meanwhile, was impressed by both her movement quality and her onstage presence. “We did a piece where everybody had a separate entrance,” he says. ”And of everyone there, her entrance got applause. And I thought, ‘Ah, note to self.’ ”
Hanna sent him a Facebook message; he responded with a dinner invitation. “I knew her dancing; I could see her work ethic,” he says. “I wanted to see how she was at the dinner table. Someone can be a great dancer, but you don’t want to work with them unless they’re a great person.” By the end of dinner, Keigwin had offered her a place in his company.
For Hanna, it was the fulfillment of a dream.“I wanted to be in a smaller company, and I wanted not to be a cog in a wheel,” she says. “I wanted to be making a contribution.” She loves that in rehearsals, the company huddles around the laptop to offer suggestions. “I love that nothing’s off limits,” she says. “We’re redefining dance.”
Rachel Elson is an editor at CBS MoneyWatch.com.
Photo of Kristina Hanna in Runaway by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Keigwin