Durham News: Community

New alliance gives independent dancers a leg up

COMPANY, featuring from left, Ronald West, Samantha Steffen, Amy Blakley and Emily Aiken (not pictured) premieres No 13 (The Weights) at The Carrack Modern Art gallery, 111 W. Parrish St., Durham, on Dec. 13-14, 2014.
COMPANY, featuring from left, Ronald West, Samantha Steffen, Amy Blakley and Emily Aiken (not pictured) premieres No 13 (The Weights) at The Carrack Modern Art gallery, 111 W. Parrish St., Durham, on Dec. 13-14, 2014. mschultz@newsobserver.com

Consider the local, independent dance company.

In a community where a national dance gathering and touring companies at campus performance halls grab most of the attention, it can be hard for the grassroots to find a following.

Now a group of local choreographers has formed Durham Independent Dance Artists (DIDA) to prove there’s strength and an audience in numbers. The founders – Nicola Bullock, Lightsey Darst, Justin Tornow and Leah Wilks – are mounting an inaugural season of 10 performances, including two this month.

On Sunday, Tornow rehearsed a show up the narrow, creaking staircase at Ninth Street Dance that her group COMPANY will perform Dec. 13-14 at Carack Modern Art gallery on Parrish Street in downtown Durham.

With the performances just two weeks away, the 35-year-old adjunct instructor at UNC-Greensboro was still working out “The Weights.” It’s a “linear motion narrative,” Tornow said, which means it lacks a storyline but must still give the viewer a sense of “something unfolding on a timeline.”

The late tinkering might have been much harder if Tornow was also spending these final weeks organizing and promoting the show.

But DIDA has allowed her and the other creators to spend more time on their craft. The new alliance is publicizing “The Weights” as part of its season, sending out press releases, spreading the word on social media and sharing a how-to guide that explains the process of putting on a show step by step.

“Choreographers around here are expected to be so much more than dance-makers: producers, fundraisers, company directors, and oftentimes dancers themselves,” co-founder Bullock said.

“When we contacted the artists last spring, several of them were on the fence about whether or not they wanted to do all the work of choreographing, producing, etc. an evening-length work,” she continued. “DIDA was the kick in the pants they needed to make it happen.”

Tornow has been rehearsing her 25-minute piece, which features original music, since June and estimates the dancers – all volunteers – will have put in up to 100 hours by the first performance. She has applied for grants she hope will allow them to get paid and take the show on tour.

“Nobody really knows us yet,” she said. “This is really a ‘Hey look! What do you think of us (moment).”

U.S. premiere

Tommy Noonan is known, just not here.

The 31-year-old choreographer and dancer has spent the past 10 years in Europe. He and collaborator Clint Lutes have performed their “Brother Brother” 35 times but will stage its U.S. premiere Dec. 18, 19 and 20, also at Durham’s Carack gallery.

The 50-minute work consists of two men on an empty stage, their bodies moving in and out of relationships with one another: familial, adversarial, romantic. Noonan says it’s less modern dance than “physical theater” – at times the dancers literally climb the wall, even howl.

“What I want is for someone to come and have an experience,” he said. “It’s not an intellectual piece. ... It s simply what happens to you.”

Noonan does not have a company. He sees DIDA’s “how to” helping to connect him as an individual artist to a growing local dance scene.

“We may have artistic skills, but we can really use that information,” he said. “DIDA has helped tremendously with that.”

The publicity doesn’t hurt either.

With most dance shows lasting a single night or weekend it can be hard to get media coverage, which helps when applying for grants.

“But with DIDA, a one-weekend show is now seen as part of a larger season and is therefore worthwhile for a journalist to write a piece on,” said Wilks, who is both a dancer and choreographer this season. “That helps so much.”

Mostly, though, it’s been great to feel part of something bigger, within DIDA and the larger Durham dance community, the choreographers agreed. The American Dance Festival, a year-round program with a nationally known summer institute, has been another great resource, Tornow said.

“It’s the reason I moved back from New York City to Durham,” she said. “It feels like it’s small enough of a place where you can have meaningful relationships with people, but also big enough – when you consider the (rest of the) Triangle – where there’s this influx of ideas in and out.

“It’s such a great place for dance.”