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The Sitdown: Nick Pupillo, artistic director of Visceral Dance Chicago

Chicago is renowned as the city where new storefront theaters announce their arrival on an almost monthly basis. But dance companies are an entirely different matter — notoriously difficult to start, nurture and maintain. And few new contemporary troupes (none I can readily name) have ever managed to pull off the feat of making their debut at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, and doing so with the immense style, content, polish and confidence displayed by Visceral Dance Chicago — first in the spring of 2014, and then again this fall. The company already is set to return to the Harris, March 21-22. Nick Pupillo, 36, an award-winning choreographer who is the founder and artistic director of Visceral, grew up in Indiana, earned a degree in ballet from Indiana University and performed with Giordano Dance Chicago from 2001 through 2004. But he had a more ambitious plan in mind — one he believed made both ideal business and artistic sense. He first wanted to establish a school where he could train and mentor young talent (he did that in 2007), and then create a company (he accomplished that in 2013). During a recent chat in Visceral’s spacious home — a complex of three studios at 2820 N. Elston at the intersection of Diversey and Western — Pupillo explained his vision.

I wanted people to take Visceral seriously from the very start, and that led to my decision to present Visceral at the Harris Theater. Having danced there myself, I knew what an amazing place it was, and I believed that my dancers worked so hard they deserved to be seen there.

I also wanted to differentiate the main company from Visceral’s youth company, which performs at the Athenaeum Theatre. And while building audiences is a slow process, the buzz is definitely out there now.

I got my business sense from my parents, who owned a hair salon in Munster [Indiana]. I’ve always been drawn to numbers, and my mom showed me everything I needed to know about bookkeeping. I took some business courses at Indiana University, too, and also began teaching dance there — something I really enjoyed.

There was a dance studio next door to the salon and I was put into classes there when I was 4. It was mostly tap and tumbling, and I loved it.

When I was 9, my dad drove me to Chicago for an audition for “The Nutcracker” at the Arie Crown, and I got cast. As a result of that I got a scholarship to study ballet at the Ruth Page school, and my dad drove me downtown two times a week for classes there.

As my love for ballet grew, I also began studying jazz and contemporary dance, and finally I started heading to Lou Conte’s studio for classes with people like Ginger Farley and Sherry Zunker.

Ballet has always been essential to me, and it’s what I look for in my dancers — that line, that musicality, that total awareness of the body.

Starting my own school was more a passion than a business. I wanted a place where aspiring and professional dancers could come and find a supportive environment.

I wanted it to be in a neighborhood where nothing else like it existed, yet we could still be part of the whole dance scene. I wasn’t sure our location was the most ideal, but the area has really developed, and being on two bus lines, and very close to the Kennedy Expressway, has been a big plus.

The space I decided to rent was a former fabric and upholstery warehouse that had once been a garage. It needed a lot of work. The biggest part of the job was leveling the floors for the three studios, which was done by several Romanian carpenters using lasers.

I had no backers. But I had saved $25,000, had accrued a number of credit cards, and took out loans for $40,000. I hate having debt and paying interest, and I’m proud to say that two years after opening I’d paid everything back.

Our studios were in big demand by “homeless” companies [Lucky Plush, Mordine, Elements, Chicago Dance Crash] and independent artists. And we earned revenue from classes for youth and adults. About 5,000 people came through the studio in the first year.

What do I look for in the dancers in my company? Strong technique. Athleticism. An openness and vulnerability, and an embrace of challenges. A desire to push to the next level, and always expect more. And the sense of an individual voice and look, because that brings personality and flavor to the dancing. I don’t want the company to be labeled.

I want to remain true to our name — visceral. And I want to keep evolving, drawing on the whole range of choreographic voices, as we’ve done by presenting the work of Sidra Bell, Monica Cervantes, Robyn Mineko Williams, Ohad Naharin and Harrison McEldowney.

I have many great collaborators, including Cheryl Mann, my artistic associate, who danced with Hubbard Street for more than a decade, until she got married, had two children and became a superb dance photographer.

I had always looked up to her as a dancer, and then our paths crossed after she retired. Once the company got started she poked her head into the studio, and from then on she couldn’t leave. Our ideas about dance just coincide, and she has had so much experience with different choreographers.

I’m a very determined person. I will not let things fail.

I often teach 10 classes a week, and last year I created 30 pieces for my youth company. The main company now has 11 dancers, and they have a 32-week contract, which is unusual, but I wanted to give them stability and attract high-level artists.

Of course they all have other jobs, teaching or waiting tables. The average salary of a contemporary dancer is about $15,000 a year.