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Her work doesn’t fit on one stage; it floats all around you

Seattle artist KT Niehoff and her good friend Michele Miller moved to Seattle 25 years ago. They came west from New York to dance with acclaimed choreographer Pat Graney.

They had youthful enthusiasm, a passion to perform, and not much else.

“We drove out in a Ryder van,” Niehoff laughs, “with her cats and my ferrets.”

That was in 1992, when Seattle’s music scene had enticed a steady stream of young artists, all looking for fame, or at least a place to express themselves. It was a DIY place before DIY was in vogue.

Niehoff fit right in.

She grew up singing in her native Colorado, then moved to New York to study theater at New York University, where she earned a bachelor’s of fine arts degree. Niehoff didn’t start dancing until her senior year of college, when a friend asked her to take a class at a local studio. Dance combined her love of music with a need to move that she never knew she had.

“It pretty much wrecked me, emotionally,” Niehoff says. That class changed the trajectory of her artistic career.

Soon she was in the dance studio four hours a day “and running out to audition for Charmin commercials,” she says, laughing. Niehoff preferred the dancing.

When choreographer Graney came to New York to audition dancers, she offered both Niehoff and Miller jobs. They moved across the country to join her company.

“She was so compelling,” Niehoff explains. “Her athleticism spoke to me.”

Four years later, Niehoff was making her own dances, for a company she named Lingo. She didn’t call herself a choreographer; she was just somebody exploring different ways that bodies could move in space. Niehoff adored the art form.

But compared with New York, Seattle had few resources for serious dancers. Rehearsal space was hard to find, and Niehoff also wanted a place to continue her own professional dance studies. Niehoff and Miller took matters into their own hands.

In 1996, they co-founded Velocity Dance Center, with the goal of providing affordable studios and a range of classes taught by some of the city’s best-known contemporary dancers.

Twenty years later, Velocity has become a mainstay of Seattle’s contemporary performance scene, with classes for every level of dancer, a packed performance calendar, topical public discussions and more.

Once Velocity was firmly established, Niehoff left to focus on her art. Her evening-length performances include sets and costumes she designs, music she writes and performs, and dance. Niehoff no longer has a permanent troupe, but she does have a cadre of artists with whom she collaborates and tours.

Several years ago Niehoff was drawn back into a quasi-administrative role when she opened a private space called Ten Degrees.

Located in the Pike-Pine corridor, Ten Degrees is a large room that Niehoff rents out for weddings and other parties. That stream of income subsidizes Ten Degrees as an artist rehearsal space. Niehoff uses it for her own work, and rents (or lends it) to other dancers and performance artists.

KT Niehoff is approaching 50, but she isn’t ready to contemplate her legacy.

“I don’t look back a lot,” she says.

In March, she’ll premier a new piece called “Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds,” a mixed-media performance that incorporates virtual reality film and a fleet of helium-filled balls that will float at will above the audience.

“I really don’t want to make work for stage anymore,” Niehoff says. “I really want interactions with the audience, an installation to walk into, or a performer that gets close to you.”

Niehoff doesn’t know if she would have accomplished what she’s done had she stayed in New York a quarter century ago. “Who really knows?” she says when asked. “And, of course not!”

Niehoff pauses.

“I think every artist responds to their surroundings, whether they understand that or not,” she says. “And I think artists gravitate toward the place they need to be. The entrepreneurial nature of my personality and my artistic practice was able to flourish in Seattle.”

KT Niehoff’s “Before We Flew Like Birds, We Flew Like Clouds,” presented by Velocity Dance Center’s ‘Made in Seattle’ program, premiers March 9.

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