Spring is the season for dance. As autumn bursts with festivals every non-football weekend, the months of February through May are ripe with dancers flexing their muscles in preparation for an abundance of performances that reveal Knoxville as the home of a surprisingly numerous and eclectic bouquet of dance companies.
Many trained dancers start out young, in tiny tutus and pink tights, pointing little toes and pirouetting with as much grace as can be mustered by a wobbly 4- or 5-year-old. Those dancing tots who stick to their lessons may one day be members of the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble, a 20-year-old organization of 8- to 17-year-olds who dance for audiences around the globe and is considered the official goodwill ambassador for the state of Tennessee. This year, Ensemble's spring show will be about renewal in a way they didn't quite expect. A fire on Dec. 20 damaged the company's Sutherland Avenue office and studio. Marketing Director Judy Robinson says the company has been inspired by the community response to Ensemble's misfortune.
"It's kind of like the Phoenix rising from the ashes," she says. "Any kind of tragedy—we saw this on 9/11—pulls people closer together. People have been extremely responsive [including] the dancers and their families. It's really important for us to do [the spring show] and keep going."
With time spent rebuilding the floor of their rehearsal studio, repairing 20 years worth of video footage of international tours and drying out photographs from albums soaked during the fire department's efforts, there's been even less time to prepare for the spring show. But after the finishing touches are put on the performance, which has been rescheduled to April 26, at the Civic Auditorium, the show will reflect the resilient spirit of the dance company and our nation in the face of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"The show will be spiritual, it'll be patriotic, it'll be, like a lot of things we do, a salute to the human spirit," Robinson says.
Dance is a sport, a solo body challenging itself to achieve grace and fluid motion, or competing for the perfect execution of choreography. The young dancers of Appalachian Ballet Company will join 23 other companies taking part in the Regional Dance America/Southeastern Regional Ballet Association Festival being hosted this spring in Knoxville. A sanctioned Dogwood Arts Festival event, the festival will bring to town nearly 800 teen-age dancers for five days of daytime workshops and nighttime festivities.
Artistic director Amy Morton has been planning to host the "Ballet At Its Best" festival for six years. The SERBA festival is a yearly event Appalachian has attended for the 11 years it's been a member of the regional dance network. The dancers and performances improve each time around, she says. "Just in the last few years, the quality of regional dance has gotten to be remarkable. These are kids who want to be professional dancers. I think it's very similar to how exciting college football is versus NFL. Regional Dance America is like watching a college team because they're so fresh and young and very exciting."
On the last night of the festival, Saturday, April 20, a select few of the companies will perform for the public at Knoxville Civic Auditorium. The Knoxville Symphony Youth Orchestra will provide accompaniment. As host company, Appalachian Ballet gets an automatic spot in the gala show, but others will be chosen by an adjudicator from the Pennsylvania Ballet. He'll be visiting ABC's Maryville studio to determine which of the three ballets they've been practicing will be best for inclusion in the gala. Appalachian Ballet has been chosen for the gala nine times, an achievement that's earned them the label of an Honor Company. Knowing the stakes of each spring's judging process keeps her dancers working hard, says Morton. "It boils down to pride. It's just a name, but it's pride that makes you keep working to hold onto your title."
Dance students at Knox County's magnet schools are preparing for an end-of-the-year finale that's more fun than finals. The dance companies of Beaumont Elementary, Vine Middle and Austin-East High School will perform in concert May 9 and 10 in the Austin-East High School auditorium.
Auditioning students will be judged for originality, clarity of concept, presentation, costume, lighting design, set design and anything else they create as part of their dance piece. "They can be pretty darn ambitious," says Kim Matibag, dance instructor at Vine Middle and artistic director for Circle Modern Dance. While A-E students run the show backstage, dancers will perform a variety of styles, from jazz, ballet, modern and West African dance, accompanied by a djembe drum section.
The spring show gives dancers a chance to completely create their own piece and present it to experienced judges. However high-anxiety, the opportunity is special. "It opens up possibilities for producing your own work on a multi-disciplinary level," says Matibag. "You can write it, do your text, do your lighting, create your own music. You can select your musicians, anything. It's wide open. And you're dancing it yourself before the judges. An opportunity like that, you get that in college."
Many students in the program have gotten opportunities to work inside the professional dance world, either through internships, summer programs or backstage at a production. And even if most of these young dancers don't end up in dance companies, the lessons serve them in many ways.
"We want them to either be a dance advocate or to go on to pursue a career in dance, be it as a dancer, choreographer, costume design, or the theater program," Matibag says. "Maybe they don't want to do dance only. But the opportunity is there, the possibility."
Spicing up the dance line-up with international flavor, the University of Tennessee Cultural Attractions Committee will host Carlota Santana's ¡Flamenco Vivo! February 23, at the Clarence Brown Theatre. Santana and her contemporaries have kicked the traditional Spanish dance up a notch by adding modern dance moves and other musical instruments in addition to the classic guitar. Representing another part of the globe, the Moscow Grigorovich Ballet will perform Spartacus March 8 and 9 at the Clarence Brown Theatre.
CAC's season is always full of touring dance companies, and they frequently schedule them this time of year to take advantage of the availability of the Clarence Brown, says CAC supervisor Ron Laffitte. "We like doing things on campus because it's all student-based, student-run. [Dance is] something everybody can relate to, and Knoxville seems to have a loyal following in respect to every kind of dance, which is cool."
Over the past 200 years, Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote has become a bigger-than-fiction character outside his eponymous novel. It only makes sense that he has his own ballet. Unlike some other traditional ballets like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, this story is cohesive, amusing and a brilliant piece of dance. Don Quixote's antics—jousting with windmills and challenging imaginary bad guys to duels—lend themselves to the physicality of ballet. And the narrative adds that extra something that makes a dance concert particularly entertaining. Originally, choreographer Marius Petipa turned the story into a rollicking comedy, and recently former Boston Ballet Artistic Director Anna Marie Holmes has put her touch on the piece to much acclaim. The City Ballet will present her updated version March 9 and 10 at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium.
The City Ballet will present two repertory pieces under the title Shiny & New to wind up their 2001-2002 season. "Like a Samba" features ballroom dancing in the Brazilian spirit, while "Going for Baroque" is a fast-action piece set to the music of Vivaldi. Shiny & New will be performed April 19 and 20 at the Tennessee Theatre.
Populated with friends and family members, the full-house crowd cheers each dance piece with almost rowdy gusto. The performers feed off the energy; you can see it in their smiles. What is this, a football game? Hardly.
"In New York a lot of the theater things start in the fall, but here you can't do that because of [UT] football," says Dr. Gene McCutchen, Dance Program Coordinator at the University of Tennessee. So the UT Dance Company waits until spring to present their big finale, when students from tap, ballet, modern and jazz classes strut their stuff.
"We like to have a varied program because our program is so varied," says McCutchen. "We like to show off what we're doing in the performance."
This year's concert will feature a piece from guest choreographer Georgio Fagan from Florida. He has worked with Paula Abdul, Keith Sweat, Kaci and Heavy D. For the spring show he's setting a traditional tango to a hip-hop beat. Other pieces in the show are being choreographed by staff members, including Peggy Burks' modern ballet piece set to "Jailhouse Rock." Graduating senior Wales Stapor, whose modern dance piece in last year's show was spectacular, is working with ballet steps this year. She received a grant from the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Greater Knoxville for students of different art fields working together on one project.
Founder and artistic director of the 11-year-old Circle Modern Dance, Mark Lamb talks like a salesman who believes in his product so much he'd pay you to take it. Luckily, his product is modern dance, an attractive package that's not always an easy sell.
"I think there's a pre-conceived notion about what modern dance is going to be," says Lamb. "We try to break that stereotype and make it accessible to everyone, onstage and in the audience. We are multi-abilitied, cross-generational, so you're not going to go see a typical, what most of the general public expects from a 'dance concert.'"
Too much modern dance is for a select audience, Lamb says, or doesn't address anything people can relate to. That kind of artsier-than-thou art can cause people to avoid dance altogether. To help bridge this distance, Lamb wants Circle choreographers to make their pieces universal by starting with the personal.
"They usually make—and I encourage them to make—dances about what they know and what's going on with them. Nine times out of 10 they are universal experiences: heartbreak or, for Primitive Light [Circle's winter show], a couple of the choreographers took on the Sept. 11th issue. We try to look at current issues. So the dances are pretty relative to the community, the world, and what's going on with the choreographers and the dancers. Less about large abstract, esoteric ideas."
Circle's spring show has a tradition of being an smorgasbord of brilliant, weird, fun, amazing dance. Lamb envisions this spring show as Circle's chance to "splash out," utilize the space afforded by the venue (this year it's the Pellissippi State Performing Arts Theatre), create a whiz-bang light show with the help of lighting designer John Horner and do everything possible to give each dance piece the chance to reach its fullest potential.
Lamb and his company operate on the firm belief that "everyone is a dancer," even those you might not think of at first. "If we're doing a piece about wisdom, we're going to cast someone who is a senior citizen, not try to have an 18-year-old pull it off," says Lamb. "We also have doctors and architects and domestic engineers and professional engineers and young people and people who are wheelchair-users. I think that really on a national level sets us apart as a dance company.
"To me a Circle concert is not really a show, it's more of an event," Lamb says. "We try to package our shows as events. As thematic. A total experience and not just coming in and sitting down and watching, but being involved."