Dance Alumni Spotlight: Denna Thomsen, ‘07
Dance, Dance Alumni, University Center for the Arts | February 25, 2015
A day in the life of dancer Denna Thomsen? Recently these have included starting her own dance company in Los Angeles, music videos with today’s top performing artists, and a recent stunning performance on Saturday Night Live. While Denna credits much of the foundation for her success to her time at CSU, she wasn’t sure she wanted to even attend college after high school.
Watch the SNL performance
Twirling around her living room and dancing on the dining room table as a little girl, Denna’s parents soon realized Denna was destined for dance classes at a young age. Continuing her training, along with drill team in high school, Denna had little trouble deciding that she wanted to keep dancing for the rest of her life. Hailing from Omaha, Neb., Denna chose the dance program at CSU for its high credentials and reputation in the area, but going to college wasn’t her first choice.
“I didn’t think I needed it, at first,” she said. “I just wanted to move to L.A. and start dancing – I didn’t think I needed all the academics behind what I did.”
At the insistence of her parents, however, Denna arrived at CSU and soon discovered what a different world she had entered. Taking a myriad of difference dance classes, including modern, interpretive, ballet, and more, Denna recalls that this was a very foreign environment.
“I didn’t necessarily see the need for the academic view of dance at the start,” she remembered. “But my time at CSU taught me the immense value of discipline in technique and the history of this amazing art form. These were the things that ended up making me a successful dancer.”
It wasn’t long into her time at CSU that Denna began to thrive in the dance program.
CSU’s Director of Dance, Jane Slusarski-Harris, remembers, “[d]uring her time at CSU, Denna was always focused, curious, and driven to learn as she developed her unique artistic vision. I have many fond memories of Denna and her fellow students from that time – they worked hard and laughed a lot.”
Denna graduated in the spring of 2007, after which she did make the move to L.A., where she ended up dancing for Hysterica Dance Co. for five years. During that time she was also dancing more commercially, with such artists as Adam Lambert, Kanye West, and Madonna. Performing with Madonna at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2012, Denna had a clarifying moment in her career.
“I remember learning that as a dancer, I was the artist,” she recalled. “Standing out there on the stage behind someone else, I realized that I wasn’t, and I needed to change that.”
Immediately after the performance, backstage at the Super Bowl, Denna phoned friend and future business partner Zak Ryan Schlegel, telling him that their ideas of starting their own company needed to start happening… now.
Facing the challenges of starting a new company, Denna knew it would take a lot of hard work, meetings, photos, publicity, team creation, and fundraising to make this dream a reality. Following up on every detail, they had nearly everything in place for Axiom Dance Theatre to launch its first show, ‘Axiom,’ with nine dancers in a venue close to downtown. Denna and Zak even held a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production. Obtaining a portion of the funds needed leading up to the show, Denna recalls the unique situation that gave them the final push:
“I had just finished shooting a video with Shia LaBeof,” she said. “I had told him about our company and that we were fundraising for our first show. He thought that was cool, but didn’t really say much more. The next day Zak called me all excited saying that the campaign had been fully funded last night. I checked the records and Shia had given us the balance to launch our production!”
‘Axiom’ oversold both of its performances, which led to a second production in November 2014. Now, with new concepts and a new cast, the company is in the process of creating its third production.
“There is a fierce joy and determination in Denna,” said Harris. “She continues to break new ground with her visceral and evocative commitment to art, and we hope to bring her to CSU in the near future to perform, choreograph, and teach. Our students, past and present, would find inspiration in her journey.”
Enjoying this successful career as a dancer and company founder today, Denna’s vision for Axiom Dance Theatre is to keep producing and to develop it as a performing arts school. Axiom’s productions and artistic messages merge acting, dance, and theatrical elements by collaborating and actively involving the imagination of each performer, including intense focus on characters and human interaction.
“We do it because people forgot that the dancer is the artist,” she said. “We once danced as the center of attention for kings and queens, and now we dance in the background for Justin Bieber – I want the world to remember how special we are.”
When asked about her inspiration, Denna recalls an important moment from her time at CSU. While she admits it didn’t necessarily “click” at the time in her dance class, she thinks back to a time in class when CSU professor of dance, Chung-Fu Chang, stated the importance of creating and telling a story with everything the dancer does.
“I had no idea what he was talking about at the time,” Denna remembered. “But looking back, I realized that all the tools that I learned at CSU – the history, the background, the storytelling – that’s what people forget about, but that’s what has made the difference in my career.”
All About Denna:
Best CSU Memory: Working on the student concerts where we had to do everything – creating the show, choreography, dancing, marketing, lighting – all of it. It gave me the confidence that gives me an edge in my career today.
Favorite Spot on Campus: The Oval – such a beautiful place with all the trees!
Ensembles at CSU: Fall/Spring Dance Concerts, Student Dance Concerts, Capstone Concerts, Tour Dance Company.
Major Influences: Right now I’m really into the Nederlands Dans Theater, Pina Bausch, Ultima Vez, and the Sleep No More show in New York – they’re all very close to what I’m doing right now.