Particularly in the dance world, change does not take place in a vacuum. A development in one area, for good or ill, can send ripples out across the practice. If others follow suit, the ripples become waves, potentially large enough to change the trajectories of people, communities, and institutions. As with the 2017 hurricane season, the shifts seem sudden only if you do not see them coming.
It's significant, then, that a week after Durham Independent Dance Artists launched its fourth season with a public recommitment to excellence and risk, the NC Dance Festival and Emergence, two unaffiliated statewide dance showcases, will follow suit, presenting the results of changes years in the making.
The last five years have seen unprecedented growth and recognition for dance makers both locally and across the state. One year after the American Dance Festival featured Winston-Salem choreographer Helen Simoneau in its 2012 Footprints concert for student dancers, the festival began reversing years of neglect of the statewide scene by presenting Carolinians on its main stages, in three annual showcases coproduced with the NC Dance Festival. Choreographers from New York and elsewhere adjudicated the series—an early signal that work produced here was robust enough to meet the standards of top professionals. That same year, Tobacco Road Dance Productions established an unorthodox mentorship program for emerging regional choreographers.
In 2014, choreographer and NCCU faculty member Kristi Vincent Johnson established an online clearinghouse for resources for dance makers, Triangle Dance Project, and produced its first Emergence showcase for rising artists from across the state. That year also saw the birth of DIDA, the region's first ongoing collaborative initiative for dance artists to help promote and produce one another's work.
In the years that followed, artists from North Carolina, including at least five DIDA dance makers, were welcomed to ADF main stages in various showcase and solo showings. When ADF's 2017 season opened with a gala night devoted to choreographers from the state, it was clear that regional choreography was being taken more seriously than it ever had been before.
That posed a particular challenge to the NC Dance Festival. Since its management hadn't changed since its founding in 1991, an initial strength—intimate connections with traditional academic centers of practice in cities including Greensboro, Raleigh, and Boone—was rapidly becoming a liability as an emerging independent, professional dance community established itself outside of the collegiate scenes.
"So much activity was happening elsewhere that we were becoming disconnected and isolated in our academic setting," says Anne Morris, director of the NCDF. As the young artists in that emerging community kept creating dance pieces for the intimate, nontraditional performance spaces they could afford to rent, another schism developed: a body of works that didn't play well on the conventional proscenium stages the NCDF used.
"We didn't always present them in the best way," Morris admits, "and when we couldn't accept many of them, some artists just stopped applying. It wasn't the right setting for them."
If the festival was to remain relevant, something had to change. After longtime director Jan Van Dyke died in 2015, the new management engaged in a series of conversations with dance communities from across the state.
"We needed to hear from them about what was going on in their communities, what's important to the artists there, and what their needs were," Morris says. The ongoing conversations have suggested the necessity of changing how and where the NCDF presents its artists.
The rollout of those changes begins Thursday night in Durham—a major change in itself, since until this year the festival's local headquarters have been at Raleigh's Meredith College. Its new venue, the Rickhouse, is an intimate event space in downtown Durham's nightlife district. The festival specifically selected artists whose work "should complement what's already happening here and whose themes should interest local audiences," says Morris. Performers such as Chris Yon, Taryn Griggs, and Joyemovement have been applauded in the last two years at ADF, and Ramya Kapadia reflects the region's longtime interest in classical Indian dance.
Two nights later, Johnson ups the stakes in the fourth year of Emergence at PSI Theatre, which includes showings by Renay Aumiller and Lucas Melfi. Johnson followed ADF's lead, placing submitted works before a panel of out-of-state adjudicators.
"When there's an outside perspective to measure where we are compared to everyone else, it gives you a different sense of confidence," Johnson says. Having worked in New York and elsewhere, she calls North Carolina one of the meccas of contemporary dance: fertile, diverse, and with audiences that are open to new ideas. Bringing in outside judges demonstrates the rising standards of Carolina choreography—and helps spread the word about that growth to the rest of the dance world.