The home video opens on a family dancing in the living room. It's Valentine's Day, and Dad is wearing heart-covered boxers over sweatpants. His four-year-old daughter's hair is a wild tangle.
"He gets down on one knee, ready for me to run at him, to lift me into the air," remembers Leah Wilks, who was the kid in the video. "But this was the moment that you knew I'd be a modern dancer, because I run at him ... and then I go under his knee." Beneath that perpetual tousle of hair, the Durham-based choreographer, dancer and community organizer laughs at her destiny to make unanticipated movement happen.
Even in a town where everyone has multiple modifiers before their names, Wilks stands out. This year, she co-founded Durham Independent Dance Artists, an organization that has molded a coherent performance season from a culture of haphazard, one-off dance events. She's also co-directing Culture Mill in Saxapahaw, a new artist-driven nonprofit that is developing a performance-related community through residencies, workshops and get-togethers.
Meanwhile, Wilks choreographs for and dances with everybody and teaches everywhere. A tireless movement instructor, she runs classes at the American Dance Festival Studios, Carolina Friends School, Ninth Street Dance, N.C. State University and Enloe High School.
This year, she made her ADF mainstage debut with her solo "Mess," which she is touring with the North Carolina Dance Festival through January. With visual artist Jon Haas, she formed the company VECTOR last year. She's also a frequent presenter at the Prompts series at the Carrack Modern Art (see story on page 15).
Wilks has performed with Renay Aumiller Dances, Gaspard&Dancers, Shaleigh Dance Works, Mamela Nyamaza and many others. Last weekend, she helped kick off DIDA's first season with Anna Barker's real.live.people.durham at Motorco. This might sound like a person moving in all directions at once, but Wilks really moves where others do not think to go. And people follow her.
Wilks' energy and restlessness have made her indispensable in the Durham dance scene, but a part of her is still that kid, looking for an interesting trajectory through space. After discovering a childhood passion for choreography while a student at Carolina Friends School, Wilks went off to Vassar College to study dance.
"I had a lot of really wonderful teachers," she says, "but I was not the darling of the dance department." Vassar's dance instruction was rooted in Martha Graham and José Limón, while Wilks and other students were more interested in cutting-edge contemporary dance, particularly after a summer of classes at ADF.
"The dance department wasn't interested in producing our work," Wilks shrugs. "I got really pissed. But actually, it was great, because I recognized that I could just start doing my own thing."
She began organizing contact improv jams and evenings of independent student choreography. She had to figure out how to hang lights and lay down marley flooring. It awoke the community producer in her.
Once Wilks moved back to Durham, she set about creating that dance community, starting a listserv and hosting gatherings where local dancemakers could share their needs and dreams. Tommy Noonan, Wilks' Culture Mill co-founder and old friend, also went to Carolina Friends School and Vassar, albeit four years ahead of Wilks. "The first time I really interacted with Leah, she was probably 12, and playing Peter Pan in a middle-school play," Noonan laughs. "I helped to lift her when she would fly around."
When Noonan returned to this area after stints in New York and Europe, he and Wilks started talking seriously about the need for a dance laboratory where artistic ideas could cook, away from academic and commercial pressures. That's Culture Mill's mission. Noonan, Wilks and Murielle Elizéon are all listed as co-directors.
"Leah's a great hub, a great connector of people, a motivating, energetic force in networking," Noonan says. "She [brings] that connective element, catalyzing disparate energies together into something."
DIDA arose from that same impulse. Wilks and dancer/choreographer Nicola Bullock saw a disorganized, insular dance scene competing for resources instead of sharing them. What if everyone cooperated, instead?
"People were doing stuff sporadically, and having to do it all themselves," Wilks says. "And I thought, 'How do we stop reinventing the wheel?' We do all this work to produce these shows for one weekend. Then no one writes about it, and you come out in the hole most of the time."
When Justin Tornow and Lightsey Darst moved to Durham from large, mature dance scenes in New York and Minneapolis, respectively, they found kindred spirits in Wilks and Bullock. The quartet founded DIDA in August, announcing a season of nine performances by different dance companies that runs through late-spring 2015.
Darst, an occasional INDY contributor, sees Wilks as a doer of the highest order. "A lot of artists just want to do their own work," she says, "and a lot of people talk about things and never do them. Then there are those few people who actually make things happen. I got it instantly that Leah was one of those people. She's a natural star."
The star organizer is also a star on stage. ADF director Jodee Nimerichter remembers Wilks' "Mess" from the "Here and Now: N.C. Dances" program. "Leah commanded the stage and captivated an audience—and it's not a small theater," Nimerichter says. "Her performance quality was beautiful and her collaboration with the video artist [Haas] made for a very compelling piece."
Although a panel of nationally recognized choreographers—Mark Dendy, Adele Myers and Zoe Scofield—selected the "Here and Now" performances through a blind application process, all four were Durham-based, which speaks to the quality and potential of the Durham dance scene.
Now that Culture Mill and DIDA are up and running, Wilks is looking forward to devoting more time to choreography. "I'm interested in creating work that builds a world and drops someone into it fully, so the moment you walk into the space"—Wilks snaps her fingers loudly—"you are somewhere else. I think that's the power of performance."