Capezio A.C.E. Awards Spotlight: Alan Salazar & Justin Pham

by Kristyn Burtt | 1/13/2020 5:26 PM

Photo courtesy of Alan Salazar.

The Capezio A.C.E. Awards are one of the premier competitions recognizing emerging choreographers. They have honored some now-familiar faces in the choreography scene while they were trying to break into this sector of the dance industry.


Some of the winners in past years include Al Blackstone, Melinda Sullivan, Talia Favia and Travis Wall. The Capezio A.C.E. Awards have become an indicator of who might be the next major player in the world of choreography.


This year's show is in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Jan. 15 at the historic Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood, followed by three more nights of dance as part of the MOVES at The Montalbán. The judges include Tessandra Chavez, Anita Mann, Marguerite Derricks, Tony Selznick, Vincent Paterson and Ray Leeper. The winner receives a $15,000 prize to mount an evening-length show of their work.


Dance Network interviewed two of the finalists in this year's show — Alan Salazar and Justin Pham. Alan is currently the assistant choreographer on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and Justin is in his senior year at USC Kaufman.


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Alan Salazar:


Dance Network: What made you decide to submit again this year after being a finalist in 2016?


Alan Salazar: I haven't submitted the last couple of years. I had an idea that I had been orbiting for a year or so. Doing something like this forces you to get those ideas out and make something happen. I have lots of little notes and writings of ideas that never really come to fruition until the right opportunity comes up and more often than not, you have to create those opportunities yourself. So it's nice to have the encouragement of a showcase like this. It's a competition specifically for choreographers and it makes me do something that appeases my artistic voice.


DN: Can you tell us about the piece you are creating?


Alan: I'm trying to be innovative with something really common. There's nothing new about the concept, but my interpretation or my discovery of what I can do with those things is innovative. My piece shines a light on man’s relationship with technology. 


I'm attempting to find the fine line of being clear with my idea, but also leaving it up to interpretation without being too right on the nose with it. I feel like a synopsis or an overview of it can guide your audience into feeling a certain way and I want people to go in with no expectations.


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DN: Tell us about the dancers you are using for your piece.


Alan: I have eight dancers. A lot of them are friends and colleagues that I've met out here — more experienced dancers, more contemporary dancers who lean into concert dance. It's very contemporary without feeling too traditional. 


DN: What are your goals for 2020 when it comes to choreography?


Alan: Last year threw me for a loop doing the High School Musical series for six months. I was in Salt Lake City and when I got back, I didn't want to leave LA as much. I didn't want to travel the entire summer and getting back, I started getting booked for some choreography stuff, but also some dance stuff (Ryan Murphy's The Prom), which was fun to jump into again. I think I want to keep a balance of both.

I enjoy being so involved in a TV series. I think it is a rare opportunity because not many shows have a dance in every single episode. I enjoy being on that side of things, but I love getting the opportunity to dance and perform on camera as well. I'm hoping to continue that with more experience and maybe with the confidence that I can still do it all. 


Alan is heading back to Season 2 of ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ this month.


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Justin Pham:

Photo courtesy of Justin Pham.

Dance Network: Tell us about the piece you are presenting at the Capezio A.C.E. Awards.


Justin: I am presenting on Wednesday called "No One" with the song by Alicia Keys. I feel like the dance industry has focused on dance being very serious. I wanted to do something that brings the joy of dance back because I don't think there's enough of that out there right now.


It's really focused on a sense of community and how the dance community comes together and can create something great. The movement itself is highly inspired by Black Vernacular dance practices and also studies of counterpoint by William Forsythe, which I've been studying at USC. It's combining my worlds of concert and commercial dance that I've been studying and putting it together to create a cohesive piece.


DN: Since you have incredible resources at USC, were you able to get feedback on your piece from some of your peers and teachers?


Justin: I think my entire piece does have USC so involved in it in all aspects. I'm a graduating senior, I'm presenting work and all nine dancers in my cast are USC Kaufman dancers. I did have a miniature showing right before we went for winter break. I showed my work-in-progress and they gave me some feedback and critiques that could help me. They didn't help with any of the choreographic process, it was the notes on my work so far.

DN: How has the USC Kaufman program strengthened your work as a choreographer?


Justin: All aspects of my career as a dancer have led me to becoming a choreographer. In my interview/audition, they asked me where I want to dance in the future and I told them I didn't see myself as a dancer. I wanted to focus on my career as a choreographer.


All of the coursework that I've been doing at USC these past four years has been geared towards composition and choreography. My concentration at Kaufman is choreography for film and television — that is something I'm specifically concentrating on.


I've had great resources to help me throughout these past four years, which is awesome. Not to mention, I get to work with some of the best dancers in the world, which is amazing.


DN: Who are the choreographers working in TV and film who inspire you?


Justin: When I did my first season of So You Think You Can Dance, Season 14, I was able to learn the opening number from Mandy Moore, who won an Emmy for that piece. I think that the process for me was such a learning experience for how a choreographer can access the languages of both dance and film. She was able to be the director and the choreographer at that time. I look to her as a light in the industry for others aspiring to break into the film world.

Don’t miss Dance Network’s  2017 ‘To The Pointe’ interview with Alan Salazar: