Dance alumni spotlight: Denna Thomsen, ‘07

Denna Thomsen at the CSU Spring Dance Concert in 2007.
Denna Thomsen at the CSU Spring Dance Concert in 2007.

This article was written by Carrie Care.

What is a day in the life of dancer Denna Thomsen like? Recently her days have involved 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 Thomsen credits much of the foundation for her success to her time at Colorado State University, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to attend college after high school.

Early formation

Twirling around her living room and dancing on the dining room table as a little girl, Thomsen’s parents soon realized she was destined for dance classes at a young age. Continuing her training, along with drill team in high school, Thomsen had little trouble deciding that she wanted to keep dancing for the rest of her life. Hailing from Omaha, Neb., she 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,” Thomsen 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, Thomsen arrived at CSU and soon discovered she had entered a different world. Taking a myriad of difference dance classes including modern, interpretive, ballet and more, Thomsen 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 Thomsen began to thrive in the dance program.

“During her time at CSU, Denna was always focused, curious and driven to learn as she developed her unique artistic vision,” Director of Dance Jane Slusarski-Harris remembers. “I have many fond memories of Denna and her fellow students from that time – they worked hard and laughed a lot.”

A success-filled career

Denna Thomsen at the CSU Spring Dance Concert in 2007.
Denna Thomsen at the CSU Spring Dance Concert in 2007.

Thomsen graduated in the spring of 2007, after which she moved to L.A., where she ended up dancing for Hysterica Dance Co. for five years. During that time she was also dancing commercially with artists like Adam Lambert, Kanye West and Madonna. Performing with Madonna at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2012, Thomsen had a clarifying moment in her career.

“I remember learning that as a dancer, I was the artist,” Thomsen 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, Thomsen phoned her friend and future business partner Zak Ryan Schlegel, telling him that their ideas of starting their own company needed to become a reality.

Facing the challenges of starting a new company, Thomsen knew it would take a lot of hard work, meetings, photos, publicity, team creation and fundraising to make this dream come true. 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 L.A. Thomsen and Schlegel even held a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to fund the production. Obtaining a portion of the funds needed leading up to the show, Thomsen recalls the unique situation that gave them the final push:

“I had just finished shooting a video with Shia LaBeouf,” 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.

Looking forward

“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.”

Denna Thomsen

Enjoying this successful career as a dancer and company founder, today, Thomsen’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,” Thomsen 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 just how special we are.”

When asked about her inspiration, Thomsen 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,” Thomsen said. “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.”

About Denna Thomsen

Best CSU memory: Working on the student concerts where she had to do everything – creating the show, choreography, dancing, marketing, lighting – all of it. She says it gave her the confidence that gives her an edge in her career today.

Favorite spot on campus: The Oval.

Ensembles at CSU: Fall/Spring Dance Concerts, Student Dance Concerts, Capstone Concerts, Tour Dance Company.

Major influences: Right now she is really into the Nederlands Dans Theater, Pina Bausch, Ultima Vez and the “Sleep No More” show in New York.