Mia Monteabaro has a reticent rather than flamboyant personality and doesn’t like public speaking, but she is very articulate and perceptive in her verbal observations. She is honest and deeply expressive in her dance. With the XALT program, Mia is retiring from WW, where she and Jim Kent have been the longest tenured members of the company.
In a recent conversation I ask her how Whim W’Him changed since she joined in 2012. At the beginning, it was much more informal. “I never did audition,” she says. “Olivier and I met over coffee. I’m not sure if he had really ever seen me dance. It was like a family, a group of close friends. We worked from project to project, and each of us often only performed in one or two of the pieces.”
Mia and all the other dancers combined dancing with other jobs. Mia had a background in gymnastics. She trained as a Pilates instructor. “In order to get everything in, I would leave at 6am and return at 8 pm. I did cross-training workouts, taught Pilates and dance. Made it work.”
I asked what it’s been like to have the dancers change over time. “Tory [Peil] and I grew up in Seattle together. We joined Spectrum in 2008. Tory came to Whim W’Him in 2010 and I did two years later.” For Mia, “Tory’s departure was hard. But we still remain great friends.”
It’s not just for close friends either, that company changes have a big impact. “Each season when dancers change over, there’s a very big dynamic shift. It’s such a small group [only 7 dancers]. One new person can make such a difference. A young dancer vs more mature. The existing dancers act as mentors and teachers, initiating them into the group. There’s a big age range, from 20 or 22 and fresh out of college to used to the world outside of school. But dancers learn very fast. It’s neat to see their evolution as a dancer and as a person.”
Back in the early days, some dancers were moonlighting from Pacific Northwest Ballet or Spectrum. “In forming a new company,” Mia muses, “these connections were important, bringing people from various backgrounds together, creating new relationships and forging a hybrid of different worlds, with a unique quality of its own.” New kinds of foot gear, new ways of partnering, of moving, of thinking about dance…
As time passed and Whim W’Him was a success, the company went to full time, with salaried dance positions and scheduled auditions. It started to build and turned into a fully professional year-round company, rather than hopping from show to show. That brought more security and more time in the studio. Mia and the others have continued to hold jobs on the side, though. “The WW salary is good compared to most, but we still need to pay bills. Of course, the ideal would be to have it as the only job with the luxury of time in preparation and stretch after and meditate on character to be fully prepared for the next day.” Of time there is never enough.
But Mia is an adventurer at heart, and there is a distinctive, irreplaceable excitement in being part of a small, intensely alive company. “Whim W’Him is a great teacher for life,” says Mia. “There are constantly changing choreographers. You have to be adaptable and put your whole self into it.”
“You can definitely feel it,” she continues, “if a dancer is fighting the methodology or the choreographers or the environment.” The key to thriving in the company lies in “enjoying the journey, being in the moment. You can’t just want to get to the other side or you miss moments to learn from and enjoy. Studio time is so unique,” Mia muses, “and yet no one gets to see it.” It’s where the work and learning take place and artistic bonds between the dancers are formed.
Which brings us naturally the effect of Covid on Mia’s own dance and life trajectory. It’s been tough, she acknowledges. “Especially the last show. There never was a performance. It’s certainly unusual, not what I envisioned.” She pauses. “I saw Tory retire.” There were celebrations of her time with the company and proper farewells. The ever-modest Mia says, “I was never the leading lady, more of a supporting actress, and never expected a piece designed for me. I just hoped to be featured.”
In the course of her Whim career, Mia has been featured many times, and she is at the very center of Olivier’s The Way It Is, premiering in a film on Thursday, August 13 at 6:00 pm. In one of the company Zoom sessions in which her departure was discussed within the company, “People said beautiful things about me.” And a lovely, touching, poignant and entirely true tribute from Mia’s family and friends is part of the August 13 opening of Whim W’Him’s streaming service, IN-WITH-WHIM.
Nonetheless, it would be dishonest to say it isn’t something of a letdown. “More than anything I wanted to wrap up my career and be seen by friends and family, who often traveled to see the performances. They know my injuries and the ups and downs of my life. It’s hard to say, ‘you already saw my last performance.’
“Before and after a real show, the dancers huddle. There are hugs and kisses—a lot of affection.” They have champagne in the green room on opening night before coming out to the audience Q&A. “I’m in it for the process,” Mia adds, “but I am a performer too, and something comes out in a show that doesn’t in the process.”
Filming just isn’t the same. The final products, as we shall all see on Thursday, are thrilling piece of art, totally unlike the typical static and pedestrian dance film. But it’s tricky from the dancer’s point of view. “We never got to do the whole piece. We never ran it. You take one bit and do it, never running through a long stretch of movement, where you feel the evolution of a piece and its highs and lows. It wasn’t even filmed in chronological order.” That makes for an emotional challenge. “You press GO—and it’s zero to 60 with no ramping up. It involves more acting. In stage performance, the whole process is more controlled by the viewer and dancer. On film, crux moments can be edited out.”
“Usually when finishing a piece,” Mia says wryly, “I have no idea what the final piece looks like.” This time she’ll be out there watching it with the rest of the audience. “On August 13, I will get nervous for different reasons. In performance I go by feeling. Here there’s a separation. The audience connects in live performance and there’s eye-contact with fellow dancers. The weight gets lost, it’s a little flat.”
In listening to Mia, I realize forcefully that what she is saying is not a complaint—she has never been a complainer—but rather a sort of lament, or perhaps an elegy, for how she had expected her dancing years to end. Yet it’s no one’s fault. Like the title of Olivier’s piece and the poem by William Stafford which inspired it, this is just The Way It Is.
And as Mia herself points out, in the era of Covid, “The films are very important to keep the audience engaged. What’s nice about Whim W’Him is that they are always challenging themselves. The dancers and company will still grow, not just hold on to something they can’t have. We will forever mark these times with these films and this quarantine. It is a unique time. But,” and she smiles, “it will make stage performance that much sweeter,” when it finally happens again.
Finally, I ask Mia about her own non-whim future? What’s next? What will she do? She’s taken a few hikes and beach trips this summer. She’ll continue teaching at Atlas Pilates. As the website there puts it, “She’s grown into a much sought after Pilates instructor. She’s exceptionally body literate and teaches with precision and clarity.” Mia and her husband, Drew, are also trying to make plans, but its hard to figure out when anything will happen. “There’s comfort in knowing everyone is in the state of unknown, but it’s more isolating. The world is moving on and we don’t know where. For now we’ll stay here and be safe. I’ll help out with Whim when they need me. We’ll take it day-by-day and week-by-week.”
Photography by: Bamberg Fine Art and Stefano Altamura