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Distinctive Voices Moving Together by Elizabeth Johnson

Distinctive Voices Moving Together by Elizabeth Johnson

I type from 6922 miles away and 7,500 feet over the pacific. We left Japan about just over an hour ago, where some of the Dance Exchange Company has been working for the past five weeks. I joined for the last 2 week stint in Kyoto – a project working with 40 community dancers spanning 6 decades. The week before I left I was in Arizona developing a teen dance project focused around the issues of genetics. Before that it was New Jersey, and the week before that I was in North Carolina. Or was it the week before that?

Who am I to speak about the D.C. dance community when I spend 32 weeks of the year in other communities? When I discussed this with Rob he encouraged me that as a member of one of the most prominent modern dance companies in the area, I am in fact a DC dance community member. I write not as any voice of authority, but from my personal perspective of being both inside and outside D.C. Dance for the past 8 years.

Several years ago DanceUSA did a study on Dance in D.C. I was interviewed in a focus group. What I said at the time, and what the study concluded, was that there was a lot of dance in D.C., but that the community was fractured; the various communities tended toward isolation. Modern and ballet dancers stuck to their styles. Individual forms of cultural dance were strong, but separated from other cultural forms and from the Modern/Ballet scene. Dancers pretty much stuck to their studio or their company, and watched the performances their friends were in.

It is seems there has been a dance boom in D.C. since the publication of that study, but have the conditions really changed? Certainly there has been great growth in our studios, as Sarah Kauffman noted in her article in the Washington Post some months ago. But it is not just buildings. There are more programs – out reach and in reach, school residencies and long term school partnerships, early release programs, expanded class series….. the list continues. With so much dance in one city (not to mention opportunities with other arts or physical practices) one might think the market would be saturated. The different companies and dance centers are now competing for dancers, resources, and attention. But I have not found this to be true. D.C. dancers and their companies/studios seem generally to want to give and receive respect and support.

I have found that the spirit of Dance in D.C. has become much more co-operative and connected. A few years ago Dance/Metro DC and Johanna Seltzer hit our inbox and changed the dance scene by connecting us in cyberspace. We can now receive weekly e-mails to know more of what’s going on (even if we are reading it from across the country.) Annually, we get to celebrate each other with the Metro D.C. Dance Awards. In addition to the actual awards, there is a community feeling to the event. We are backstage warming up together and can say, “I read your e-news and it sounds like your new project is really taking off. I know someone you might want to contact…) Last year I thoroughly enjoyed sun saluting with BosmaDance backstage at this event, and I know this year Dance Exchange’s Artistic Director Peter DiMuro had a blast co-hosting with Doug Yuell (Director of Joy of Motion.) Although the awards are a competition, the spirit is warm and brings our community together. Dance Place’s Youth Dance Festival gives the younger dancers of our community a similar experience, allowing them to share classes and a stage together, honoring the important work being done by young people in all styles.

I believe these trends have started to bridge some of the divides that used to exist. Speaking from my own experience at the Dance Exchange, I see how rewarding our collaborations with organizations (The Field and Bowen/McCauley Dance amongst others) and individual artists (Kelly Mayfield, Vincent Thomas and Gesel Mason, amongst others) has been. Whether through teaching or performing, working together brings people together. It is exceptional that these amazing artists and arts organizations can share their time and talents with the Dance Exchange, and rewarding to see that it does not cost them their individual standing in our community. There is generosity amongst us. But there is still work to be done.

While overall the “State of Dance” in D.C. seems to be getting more connected we can do more. I know I for one need to get out to see more shows, and of more types of dance. We need to fill the seats and show our support, even if we are not close friends with the choreographers. And we need to fill the seats not just with us, but with our beautician friends, our lawyer friends, our landlords – the non artsy among us in D.C. One of the greatest challenges we face is the need to build and consolidate diverse audiences for all types of dance.

The D.C. Dance community is building a co-operative spirit and the next step may be to move from co-operation to collaboration. And while this is already happening in many ways all over the city, collaborative projects take time and money. While there is good intention, it is easier in thought than action. It is more straightforward to have you do your thing, while I do my thing and then we can put them next to each other and appreciate the good work. True collaboration requires mixing skills, pushing patterns, and sharing vision. It is tough, yet rich work.

We are a motley crew at Dance Exchange, and each day is a collaborative process as we blend our really different skills to create performance works and workshop experiences. With our company we seek to bring out the nature of each individual member. We believe the more Thomas is Thomas, the more Elizabeth can be Elizabeth. I believe this is true for organizations as well. The more Joy of Motion is Joy of Motion, the more Dance Place can be Dance Place. The more CityDance is CityDance, the more Dance Exchange can be Dance Exchange. We can see there is room for both and all.

But do we want to move to collaboration? Collaboration requires distinction and a respect for the unique skills each brings to the work. It requires collaborating partners to be specific about what they want to gain from the collaboration, and what the pay off is for the individuals, the collaborating organizations, and the artistic community in the District.

In a city known for it’s politics, I realize that I have my own politics to overcome if I want to work be more connected to other artists, and arts organizations. And yet, with a growing positive spirit among us, we are in a good space to rise above our historical barriers and move to a new place in a way only the dance community can do: by literally moving. We can be a vibrant example for the rest of the world. I am glad that I have the opportunity to be a part of the next chapter in the “State of Dance” in this city without statehood. As far as the dance goes, it is a good state to be in.

elizabethjohnsonElizabeth Johnson is a choreographer, dancer and the director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange’s Teen Exchange program. As a company member, Elizabeth has collaboratively created dances in communities from Eastport, Maine to Los Angeles – with Vietnam vets; senior citizens; religious leaders of many faiths; high school teachers and professional dancers. Her work with teens has been featured across the country as well as at home in the metro-DC area. Her choreographic work is driven by athleticism, physiology, and the desire to push boundaries. She graduated from Connecticut College with a B.A. in Dance and a minor in Theatre, and has studied at London Contemporary Dance School.

originally published in Bourgeon Vol. 3 #1


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