What’s right with the D.C. dance scene?

Work in Progress: What's wrong with D.C.'s modern dance scene?

A little over a week ago,  D.C. area dancer and writer Amanda Abrams posted a rather hard-hitting critique of our local dance scene entitled “Work-in-Progress: What’s Wrong with D.C.’s Modern Dance Scene?” As a modern dancer and choreographer working in the D.C. metro area, I have to say that I honestly didn’t have much argument with the points she made.   She praises some particular organizations and censures others, and compares the dance scene here to that of other cities, but the crux of her critique is this:

There are plenty of opportunities to make and see dance in D.C. But most local dancers are stuck depicting underdeveloped ideas in a movement style that was popularized several decades ago, one that’s muscle-bound and linear and draws heavily from the ballet vocabulary. Sure, it can be attractive—but what about original and smart? Modern dance has moved on, and choreographers elsewhere are developing new ways to present abstract concepts through the body. But you’d hardly know it by watching many Washington-area dance companies.

Having lived here for over four years, I’ve attended my fair share of dance shows, and I definitely get her point.  Earlier in my career, I spent a few years living and dancing in New York City, and I have no illusions that the D.C. dance scene is as dynamic or as daring as what I experienced there.   And yet, here’s the thing: Reading Abrams’ article didn’t make me feel justified, it made me feel defensive, a little protective of our local dance scene.

Sure, I’ve seen a lot of half-baked dances since I’ve lived here, but, honestly, I’ve seen a lot of equally crappy work in New York City, Atlanta, Houston, Milwaukee and Chicago.  I’m not saying that failure elsewhere should make us complacent.  I want to see a day when the D.C. area is known for making amazing contemporary work and supporting a strong, articulate community of modern dancers and choreographers.  I want to see that happen so much that I decided to stay here, start a company here and build community with other artists here.  I see the problems, but I also see the promise.

There are a lot of opportunities here for young dancers to get fantastic training and performance opportunities at places like Maryland Youth Ballet, Dance Place and Joy of Motion just to name a few.  And, there are active modern dance programs at many colleges and universities in the area. Where I grew up,  just outside Lexington, Kentucky, there was nothing like these kinds of opportunities.  To major in dance, I had to leave the entire state.  So, we’ve got a lot going for us.

The way I see it what’s right with the D.C. dance scene is also what’s wrong with us.  There are lots of opportunities to get started as a modern dancer, but very few opportunities to grow as an independent artist once you are one.  Engaging in the creative process takes a real sacrifice of time and energy without any guarantee of “success.”  Part of the magic of the NYC dance scene is the sheer number of choreographers making all kinds of work–good, bad, ugly, strange, shocking, mundane.  This commitment to just making work and taking risks, not just putting on a show, is sort of in the air.  When I was dancing in NYC, I spent a lot time just talking with other artists.

And, I think that’s key to moving forward.  Those of us who are here need to be listening to each other, supporting each other, forging collaborations, making more opportunities for each other.  The NYC dance scene thrives because the artists within it are its engine, and so everyone one of us making dances in the D.C. area are both part of our problem and our only solution.

While I can’t say I disagree Abrams’ assessment, I do want to say that that I am more excited about the possibilities here than discouraged by the limitations. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. To Peter DiMuro,  I say, “Love the Greenhouse idea…more info please.” To Dance Exchange, I say, “Thursday nights sound great.  How do we get involved?” And to any “homeless” modern dancers out there looking for a place to grow through the creative process, I say, “You’re invited to alight. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying to be part of the solution.”

alight likes: Crochet madness

Polish artist Agata Oleksiak creates a riot of color with crochet.

I love color.  It makes me want to move. This kind of bright, vibrant, so electric it is almost offensive color, just energizes me.  It is like seeing music, like the intoxicating beat of techno music blasting silently, texture instead of sound.  Maybe it is the 64 Box Crayons syndrome. As a kid, opening a huge box of new crayons was always sort of magical, filled with the possibility and joy of densely packed color.  The work of mixed media artist Agata Oleksiak gives me that same feeling.

Agata grew up in industrial Poland and graduated from  A. Mickiewicz University with a degree in cultural studies.  After moving to New York City, she rediscovered her ability to crochet and just started wrapping everything around her chains of color.  She describes her creative process this way:

A loop after a loop. Hour after hour my madness becomes crochet. Life and art are inseparable. The movies I watch while crocheting influence my work, and my work dictates the films I select. I crochet everything that enters my space. Sometimes it’s a text message, a medical report, found objects. There is the unraveling, the ephemeral part of my work that never lets me forget about the limited life of the art object and art concept. What do I intend to reveal? You have to pull the end of the yarn and unravel the story behind the crochet.

Her process is one of accumulation, an overflowing of soft, chaotic color. To me, it is excessive and obsessive in the best way possible.  And, it reminds me again of the power of art to surprise and delight us.

Preparing for Wednesday night rehearsals with alight, I often find myself thinking about how I can use our finite time together most effectively, most efficiently, most productively.  That’s all a necessary part of the director gig i.e. managing time and resources thoughtfully.  And yet, Agata’s work reminds me that my most primary responsibility is be an artist that delights, surprises, challenges, evokes and celebrates.  Now, I feel like dancing!


Spelunking @ Dance Place

Monica Warren Schaeffer is a founding member of alight.  You might remember her beautiful performance in our debut work, Speechless, but you might not know Monica is also a choreographer.  This season she is creating a new work for alight. Entitled Shadowmark, this work explores the “heightened consciousness of visibility” Monica experienced while on a caving exploration in the Austrian Alps.  This work-in-progress will be performed at Dance Place (Washington, D.C.) as part of the Next Reflex Dance Collective’s “Places in Space” project on June 18 & 19, 2011.

Shadowmark was commissioned by alight dance theater and will premiere in its entirety at Dance Place (Washington, D.C.) on January 21 & 22, 2012.

Living sacrifice

Memorial Day Summer 2010 in Arlington Cemetery

Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day, Summer 2010

I’m fascinated by the history and ritual of holidays.  According to History.com, Our country’s observation of the Memorial Day traces its roots back to 1868 and the Civil War era tradition of honoring the dead by decorating their graves. This weekend many people will visit lay wreaths at a memorial, maybe even participate in a parade or rally, to honor loved ones and strangers alike who died in military service to our country.  But, just as many people, maybe more of us, won’t.

Lots of us, myself included, see this long weekend as a time to rest, catch up with friends and family and hit the sale racks.  Honoring the sacrifices of the dead, particularly those distinguished in battle, is an ancient and worthy practice, but it can also be an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality.   On this soft, sunny day, I admit I’d rather be sipping lemonade and picking out strawberries at the Greenbelt Farmer’s Market than mediating on the death of thousands whose sacrifices made these moments possible.  I’d rather be dwelling on the beauty, joy and possibilities of today than focusing on the brokenness and violence that make such sacrifices necessary.

And yet, sitting in church this morning, I was reminded of this phrase “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” which is found in Romans 12:1.  My art and faith have always been in conversation with each other, and this idea of being a living sacrifice has resonated with me for years.  My body is my instrument. While I don’t train as intensively now as I once did, I usually dance five or six days a week.   As a young dancer, I abandoned many other interests, possibilities and even relationships to pursue my art.  It didn’t all end up exactly the way I imagined, but, those choices still shape me today, for better and for worse.  So, the body “as a living sacrifice” makes sense to me.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we are called on to remember the men and women died in service of the ideals of justice and freedom.  While their bodies are laid to rest, their sacrifices live on through our memories.  Today, it occurred to me that like those before us we all sacrifice our bodies, our days, our finite time on this earth to something or someone.  Just out of college, I thought I was to give up anything to be a professional dancer in New York City, but, eventually, I left the city and chose a creative life that I could share with my husband.  No doubt, I would be a different person–physically, emotionally, spiritually–if I had chosen differently.  This weekend has reminded me that my body is a breathing memorial to my past choices and, like the nation I call home, I can only move into the future upon that foundation.

Dancing this summer?

Looking for somewhere to take class this summer? Join us for our Open Company Class Series meeting every Wednesdays, 6:30-8pm and most Saturdays, 1-2:30pm throughout the summer. (See detailed schedule below.)  Instructors include alight Artistic Director, Angella Foster; alight dancer Caitlin Jordan and guest artist Wayles Haynes.  For intermediate / advanced level dancers (ages 18 +). All classes will meet at the Greenbelt Community Center dance studio located at 15 Crescent Road, Greenbelt MD 20770 (about 10 minutes from UMD-College Park campus.)  The studio is public transit accessible via G12 or G14 bus from the Greenbelt Metro Station or by UMD Shuttle 106. Free parking on-site.

Save the date!

We’re really excited to announce our 2011-2012 season, and we wanted you all to be the first to know.  This season we’re presenting three new works: Truth Be Told, directed by alight artistic director Angella Foster; Shadowmark, choreographed by alight dancer Monica Warren Schaeffer and Sandcastle, choreographed by guest artist Wayles Haynes. We hope you’ll mark your calendars and plan to join us!

And, as always, if  you’re a dancer in the D.C. area looking for a place to take class, our company classes are free and open to the public on Wednesdays, 6:30-8:00pm and Saturdays, 1:00-2:15pm.  For more information about classes, click here.

Spring cleaning

I know it seems like a cliche, like some Martha Stewart marketing ploy, but there was a time when “spring cleaning” actually meant something.  In the past, homes were heated by burning coal, wood or oil which made for some pretty dingy interiors by the end of a long, cold winter.  By the time spring came along the whole house was ready for a good, thorough scrubbing. Of course, today our homes and our lives are so different that throwing open our windows at the first sight of spring actually creates the cleaning problem. At my house, that glorious fresh breeze blows in a thin dust of pollen and then sends my allergies into fury.

Thanks to my crazy allergies, I’ve lost my voice which has seriously disrupted my previously scheduled programming.  Instead of teaching, I spent today at home knocking out piles of  laundry and catching up on emails…and now finally blogging again for the first time in almost two months. This time last year I was writing five days a week and working two less jobs.  I’ve been scattered in so many directions lately that being home today feels like the beginning of a mental spring cleaning for me.

While I’d rather be running about, being my usual “productive” aka chatty self, I am willing to admit, albeit reluctantly, that it is a relief to be forced to rest.  Truth be told, I am not very good at resting. Part of my problem is that I really love what I do. Like anyone, I have off days when I’m tired and crabby and less grateful than I should be, but most days I can see so clearly just how fortunate I am to do the work I do.

The talented and so glamorous cast of Truth Be Told in costume filming on-location in Roosevelt Center in the heart of historic Greenbelt, Maryland.

Just this past weekend, alight worked with film student, Lauren Burke, to shoot a promotional video for our current project, Truth Be Told. It was supposed to rain all day, but it didn’t, and we had a great time. In contrast to their diva alter-egos above, the dancers of alight are a goofy, hard-working bunch, and our rehearsals are often the highlight of my week.  It is hard to want to rest when there’s so much good work to be done, and most of the time I enjoy it so much.

And yet, sitting here writing, listening to birds chirping in the distance and taking the time to savor the weekend’s accomplishments, I have to admit that it feels good to stop doing. Like a dusty, cluttered house, my life has been in need of some spring cleaning for weeks.  I love what I do, but, honestly, I’ve been a bit run-down and uninspired lately which is not so great for the creative process.  Walking into rehearsal tomorrow night, I may still not be able to speak over a whisper, but I am excited to return to the studio with a little more space in my brain for the work I love so much.

Little women

The selected girls chorus of Springhill Lake Elementary as featured on the GreenbeltPatch.com

By the age of eleven, I had some regrets.  Ever since I could remember I had wanted to be ballet dancer.  By third grade,  I had read every single book in my elementary school that even mentioned word dance.  No exaggeration.  The librarian told me that herself.

All that reading had taught me three very important things. First, ballet dancers were ideally between 5’4 and 5’6 so that even on pointe they would not be “too tall” to be partnered. Secondly, ballet dancers had to start very young at about the age of seven.  And, finally, they needed to train everyday, preferably somewhere like New York City or Moscow.  Though I kept praying to be no taller than 5’6, I kind of already new I wasn’t going to make it in the world of ballet.

My eventual height wouldn’t change the fact that by eleven years of age I was still living in Kentucky and had only taken a few YMCA dance classes.  My parents couldn’t afford fancy lessons, and, even if they could, there weren’t any distinguished schools of dance in my hometown.  As if that wasn’t enough, I had flat feet.  The books were very clear; flat feet were not ideal for a ballet dancer.

Now, fast forward to last Friday when I performed an excerpt from Speechless for the Women’s Day at Springhill Lake Elementary. Sitting in the audience, at a school cafeteria table, I am nibbling at the breakfast food provided and waiting for the program to begin.  Onstage already are the two fifth grade girls who are serving as the hosts of the show. One is very out-spoken, quite confident and the other a quieter girl with a big smile.

In addition, there are about 25 other fifth grade girls ready to deliver biographies of famous women and/or sing with the “selected girls” chorus.  They are dressed up in their best clothes which ranges from very trendy fare to classic Sunday-best dresses.  They were all fresh-faced, on their best behavior and acting impossibly proud of themselves.  They all looked so young, so unmarked by life, just full of future promise and potential.

And then, my eleven year old self chimed in.  These girls aren’t waiting to start living in some distant magical future. Everyone of them already has hopes and dreams, maybe even some regrets.  They still look like children but inside they are already little women who are starting to work out who and what they want to be.   As I watched them sing Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” I stopped thinking about their “potential” and began to appreciate all they had to offer the world already.

The fifth grade girls of Springhill Lake Elementary reminded me that becoming a women, being a woman, is about how you live each day as it comes.  In this Women’s History Month, I am inspired by the hope, spirit and seriousness of purpose those young ladies demonstrated.   They reminded me that my eleven-year-old regrets have faded away, but the passion and perserverance of my childhood have helped me survive many disappointments.  They also reminded me that the women who have served me best in my journey have treated me like the woman I wanted to be rather than the child I was at the moment.

Application-phobia?

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You can overcome your application-phobia and still get your stuff into the Eureka Dance Festival before the new March 25th deadline!

Kate Jordan is a friend of mine and one of the co-founders of Eureka Dance Festival. We were chatting recently, comparing schedules and trying to find a time to bring Kate in to teach alight Open Company Class.  In the meantime, we also got to talking about a common ailment affecting young choreographers: application-phobia.

Every year Eureka Dance Festival selects a group of DC-metro area dance artists to create new works for the festival.  In order to be considered for this opportunity, choreographers must submit an application.  The deadline was recently extended to March 25th, so, if you are application phobic but interested in this opportunity, you still have time to apply.

As I am writing this, I am in middle of working on several applications for funding and performance opportunities all which are due in the next couple months. From experience, I know that applications like this are a lot of work and, of course, there is no guarantee that they will pay off in terms of real money or opportunities.  For young choreographers, I think it can be particularly daunting to put forth the effort to complete and submit such applications because all that work could just lead to rejection.

Last year, I was awarded the Kennedy Center Local Dance Commissioning Grant to create alight’s most recent work, Speechless, but, when I sent in the application, I just assumed I would not receive the funding.  I’ve applied for many things in the past with no results, but I kept trying.  As dancers, we know we have to hone our craft in class and rehearsals on a weekly basis if we’re going to improve.  Writing grant proposals and festival applications may not be as exciting as a good technique class, but those skills take practice too. You can’t expect to improve if you’re not trying.

If you’ve been thinking about applying for the Eureka Dance Festival or any other opportunity, don’t hesitate and just do it.  My advice is to take the risk.  Applications are a lot work, but they can also lead to amazing things…but only for those who actually meet the deadline!

P.S. Kate Jordan will be teaching alight OPEN COMPANY CLASS on Wednesday, April 13th, 6:30-8pm. Class is free and open to all intermediate / advanced dancers.  All alight classes and rehearsals take place at the Greenbelt Community Center Dance Studio located at 15 Crescent Road, Greenbelt MD 20770.  Free parking. Public transit accessible: Take Green line to Greenbelt Station & transfer to the G12 or G14.  UMD-College Park students can take Shuttle 106 to Greenbelt.

Sweat for free!

Now through the end of May, you are invited to dance with us!  Join us for our Open Company Class Series meeting on Wednesdays, 6:30-8pm and Saturdays, 1-2:30pm. Instructors include alight Artistic Director, Angella Foster; alight dancers Caitlin Jordan and Heather Creek; alight guest artists Wayles Haynes as well as Kate Jordan, director of Eureka Dance Festival.  All classes will meet at the Greenbelt Community Center dance studio located at 15 Crescent Road, Greenbelt MD 20770 (about 10 minutes from UMD-College Park campus.)  The studio is public transit accessible via G12 or G14 bus from the Greenbelt Metro Station or by UMD Shuttle 106. Free parking on-site.

Check out the schedule below for all the details & come dance with us! P.S. Class is free.

alight artistic director Angella Foster

alight dancers Lucia Cisneros & Monica Warren Schaeffer rehearsing Speechless in our beautiful rehearsal space at the Greenbelt Community Center.

Modern Technique
March 23 & 30; April 2, 9, 13 & 27; May 7 & 21

alight dancer Heather Creek
Contemporary Ballet
March 9 & 24; April 6 & 20; May 4

alight dancer Caitlin Jordan
Dance Conditioning
March 26, April 16 & May 14

co-founder of Eureka Dance Festival Kate Jordan
Modern Technique
April 13

alight guest artist Wayles Haynes
Modern Technique
May 11, 18 & 25