Next weekend, modern-dance fans across central and northern Vermont are in for a treat. That's when the first annual DanceFest Vermont!, a showcase and celebration of contemporary dance in the state, will present two evenings of original work by 10 Vermont choreographers.
On the fest's first evening, Friday, September 5, works by five of those choreographers will be performed at the Barre Opera House. They include solos by Paul Besaw and the festival's artistic director, Erika Lawlor Schmidt, both influenced by Asian dance; a trio of colorful, theatrical dances by Middlebury choreographer Patty Smith; an improvisational movement-inspired dance by Willow Wonder; and a solo and duet choreographed by Toby MacNutt.
Ensemble work takes the stage on DanceFest's second evening, Saturday, September 6, at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe. Montpelier-based dancer and choreographer Hanna Satterlee presents sections of her ongoing, collaborative work Animal; Heather Bryce's dance company performs Breathing Under Water; DOUBLE VISION shows 6 Phrases, 3 Rules, a complex, systematic dance gleaned from improvisational beginnings; Lida Winfield and Ellen Ahern-Smith use text and movement to explore power, oppression and the female body; and Besaw returns with an ensemble piece performed to live music.
Sounds like there's something for everyone, right? That's the point. The goal, according to organizers, is to get as many dance fans under one roof as possible.
"We're hoping to draw an audience from the established dance community — that is, dancers and dance students and those who regularly attend dance performances," says Dan Casey, executive director of the Barre Opera House. "But, as important, we're also hoping to bring in other folks with little or no exposure to modern dance who may have a curiosity about it."
Over time, organizers hope to expand the festival into a multiple-weekend event in locations around the state. The aim is twofold: to grow a local modern dance audience throughout Vermont, and to give "some well-deserved visibility to these dancers and the genre," Casey says.
"There's a thriving and significant contemporary dance community here," notes Schmidt, the Pawlet-based visual artist and choreographer who dreamed up DanceFest and spearheaded its organization.
But that community, she observes, is dispersed. It clusters in cities and towns — including Montpelier, Burlington and Middlebury — where studios and college dance programs provide hubs for dancers and choreographers to gather and create. Audiences rarely have an opportunity to sample a broad range of local talent in one place.
Schmidt — a lifelong dancer and a professional teacher and choreographer who spent most of her adult life in central Florida — moved with her husband, the composer Gary Schmidt, to Pawlet on a whim in 2007. The creative couple set up private studios on their property, but Schmidt found herself frequently driving an hour or so in search of other dancers.
"I went to Middlebury for my dance community," she says. There, she took classes with the college's dance department and collaborated with former Middlebury College professor Tiffany Rhynard's company Big APE (now based in Florida.) She also participated in choreographer Hannah Dennison's Dear Pina at Shelburne Farms.
Schmidt initially created DanceFest aiming to bring talented dance acts to Rutland County, where she lives. "[Access to performances] is the challenge of living rurally," she says. "Especially in the winter."
As the idea for the festival evolved, Schmidt reached out to her previous collaborators and other talented artists she'd seen perform. Though her initial idea of having a Rutland County-based event didn't materialize in the first year, the inaugural DanceFest will be held in Washington and Lamoille county venues. Schmidt hopes that having 10 choreographers on the bill will draw modern-dance fans out of the woodwork "from around the state," she says.
Schmidt expects the event will encourage dancers and choreographers to connect both with one another and with audience members.
"I think it's wonderful for us to see each other's work coming together at the same time," says Bryce, whose South Burlington-based dance company performs on Saturday in Stowe. "Seeing each other's work, performing for each other and getting feedback provides us with growth opportunities."