In the last two years, Tulsa has grown an underground hub of modern dance, with professionally trained dancers performing at the community level and inciting new interest and excitement in the art form.
That such a movement is happening here and now could be called a consequence of serendipity. It just so happened that, in the last 36 months, several modern dancers have made their way to T-Town for various reasons -- the most common being job relocation by a spouse.
Not wanting to give up their passion for dance, and finding no community companies to join, they each started their own and have, in the past year or so, seen increasing success in attracting both audiences and dancers to their work.
Also contributing to their success is the support they've received from professional organizations like Tulsa Ballet and Living Arts.
Perhaps the most surprising factor in all of this is the lack of competition between the companies. Dancers move fluidly from one to the other, free to participate in as many programs as they have time for, and the companies' founders support and encourage one another. Together, they compose a committee, working within contemporary art gallery Living Arts, whose goal is to further the modern dance movement in Tulsa.
Jennifer Alden, founder of Portico Dans Theatre, leads that committee. She said she got involved with Living Arts because of its commitment to creating new performing arts works -- dance being one of the performing arts.
Members of the committee also include Amy Roark-McIntosh, with Living Water Dance Co.; Rachel Bruce Johnson, with The Bell House; Arien Christopher, with Tulsa Modern Movement; and Jessica Vokoun, assistant professor of dance at the University of Tulsa and founder of the Oklahoma Dance Film Festival.
"It was important to us that the committee only contained people who were creating new dance in Tulsa because Living Arts' mission is to support local, new contemporary art," Alden said. "Our focus and mission are the same."
In the Beginning
Living Water Dance Co. was one of the first contemporary companies to be formed in Tulsa. Roark-McIntosh brought the company to town with her when she and her husband moved from Jackson, Miss.
She took on the role of Director of Dance, instructing students in ORU's newly formed dance major -- a program she calls "revolutionary." But though she was dancing every day in a teaching position, it was important for her to continue her own personal edification as a dancer.
"If I'm teaching, if I'm passing on (instruction) to my students at ORU, I have to speak to them from an honest place," she said. "If I'm not putting (dance) into action, I'm just teaching."
Roark-McIntosh said it's important to her that she's "living what I'm teaching."
"I'm practicing what I'm talking about," she said. "That's what I want to do for the rest of my life. Art is a way of life. For me, it's not just a hobby; it's a way of life."
Roark-McIntosh said she was "waiting for the right people" to help her start Living Water, and, in 2007, she found them -- Jessie Dolevel and Rachel Bruce Johnson.
"We just started working together -- making dance, doing class together. It wasn't long before people started showing up and watching us dance," she said.
Living Water's focus is "repertoire adaptable for various performance spaces" site-specific creations. The company also offers workshops in technique, improvisation, choreography, performance techniques, dance and faith.
The company works collaboratively with other artists and organizations and strives to create dialogue about and create art that embraces the community.
"Community is really a big thing for me," Roark-McIntosh said. "I wanted to create a place where what was happening within the time spent together as a company, working on material, was just as much a part of the experience as was the performance. We live our lives together, and I think that's what shapes us as performers."
And Then There Were Two
Though it wasn't the first modern dance company to form in Tulsa, Portico Dans Theatre, which Alden formed with friend Valeria Cordero, who subsequently moved to New Mexico, has been credited with speeding the local movement along. It was the first company to produce a full-length production, and Alden created and brought together the members of the Living Arts Dance Committee.
The committee is developing a modern dance festival that they hope to produce next spring in conjunction with Tulsa's Young Professionals' Street Cred program.
"With Street Cred, TYPros goes into underdeveloped parts of the city and refurbishes them so people can see what is possible," Alden said. "I had been thinking about doing a site-specific work, and we thought it would be perfect for us to combine our efforts with that TYPros project, so while they're refurbishing these areas, we'd go do a performance in a refurbished building. Then the audience can see life happening in these newly developed spaces. It hits all our mission points; it's a big focus for us this year."
Portico's mission is to incorporate ballet, jazz, modern, contemporary, hip-hop, musical theater, tap, aerial dance, stage combat, and historical dance, among other genres, into its choreography to make it "as diverse and unpredictable as it is engaging and entertaining."
The company has collaborated with spoken word artists, visual artists, musicians and others, and its productions have garnered enthusiastic audience response for their theatrical elements, as well as their dance techniques.
Alden says she hopes Portico has served to further the contemporary dance movement in Tulsa, and she thinks the growing movement has definitely impacted audience support of her company.
"People are more interested in supporting us now than they were a few years ago when we first started," she said. "Attendance at our performances this year has been double what it was our first year (2008). The response been really great. I think it's because we started building this community -- not only of dancers, but also of audience members."
On Her Own
Megan McKown-Miller was a soloist with Tulsa Ballet (TB) before she founded Soluna Performing Arts Co., which debuted last year with Song of the Swimming Sun, co-choreographed by TB principal Ma Cong.
McKown-Miller danced with Tulsa Ballet for 16 years before retiring in 2004, after having children.
McKown-Miller has cited a desire to provide amateur dancers with an opportunity to perform and to close the gap between professional and community companies as two reasons she started her company.
"Dancing with Tulsa Ballet for so many years, I was surprised after I retired and discovered just how many people were not familiar with or had not seen Tulsa Ballet, and I wanted to make a point of somehow, when it was at all possible, to have a dancer from Tulsa Ballet included in my work," McKown-Miller said. "On the flip side, by having community dancers -- musicians and artists as well -- as the core of Soluna projects, I would hopefully expose and pleasantly surprise those people who only attend larger theater performances to this incredible talent that is the heart of our city.
"When you bring so many different artists together, especially if they are all from your own community, people are curious as to what is being presented. Song of the Swimming Sun, for instance, was a sold-out show at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center."
Since Soluna, other companies -- The Bell House and Tulsa Modern Movement, co-founded by Arien Christopher and Nina Madsen, who created and performed a site-specific work on the east bank of the Arkansas River earlier this year -- have also formed, and they've been embraced by the companies already in existence.
Very little, if any, competition is felt between the companies.
"I think the key is the fact that we all are a little different," Alden said. "We all have our own style. We could each have a performance one right after the other, and none of them would be similar. That keeps us separate and helps us keep our own identities. We share dancers; there hasn't been any competition so far. It's really been healthy, and we've all been here to support each other."
Roark-McIntosh said she's excited, not threatened, by the formation of new modern dance companies.
"I think it's very exciting," she said. "I think it shows there is a community being created. To me, it shows that people feel supported to be able to branch off and make their own work and begin to tell their stories of what's their internal world. It has been happening fast.
"Some of my dancers have danced with other groups, and I think that's a healthy atmosphere, where people can grow as artists. In Tulsa, which is not that big of a city, we can encourage one another. I think that's going to become essential, that we support each other."
Steve Liggett, artistic director for Living Arts, says it's also essential that the companies support the community.
"A lot of these young dancers understand the importance of not just doing dance; they understand the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community," he said. "And of working in cross-disciplinary ways with video artists, musicians, sculptors. They get it: To make a juicy piece, you need to have people around you who are really dedicated to their craft, their medium."
Many of the dancers credit Liggett, as well as Living Arts, for providing an atmosphere that enables modern dance companies to foster and grow. Liggett's east downtown gallery space, Liggett Studio, serves as rehearsal space for many of the companies, and both he and Living Arts have been generous with their support and resources.
Living Arts works in partnership with the National Performance Network to develop and present contemporary performance art works. The partnership allows Living Arts to help local artists reach a national audience and to bring in artists from the national arena to enrich the local community through performances, workshops and residencies.
"Living Arts has always been supportive of new movement-based artwork," said Artistic Director Steve Liggett. "That's the way we look at it -- it's just another medium that can be used for personal expression."
Living Arts has hosted major national performers like the Deborah Hay Dance Co., the Merce Cunningham Dance Co. and the Pickup Performance Co.
The nonprofit's annual New Genre Festival has increasingly showcased both local and national modern dance companies.
Tulsa Ballet, which has earned international acclaim for both its dance and choreography talent, has also supported contemporary dance, both within its company and in the community.
When asked about which he loves more -- classical or modern ballet -- before last year's performance of "Classical Relativity," Tulsa Ballet principal Alfonso Martin said: "I love both. The experience and challenges in classical ballets can be poured into modern works, and the freedom you get from modern works can sometimes be poured into the classical ballets.
"Dance starts with classical ballet, and is the key that opens other dance forms, neoclassical or contemporary," Martin said. "Classical ballet sets the standard for a company to do a full-length ballet. Sometimes companies perform just one type of dance, so they have only one type of dancer. In our company, we can go both ways, which makes for variety. Why just go one way? It's better for the dancers, since they like the challenge and, as the company grows, it can educate the audience."
Earlier this month, Angelini issued a call to local contemporary dance companies, offering them an opportunity to perform on the TB stage.
The companies have been invited to submit work for Tulsa Ballet's "Creations in Studio K" series, which stages new works at its (fairly) new Kivisto Performance Hall located at 1212 E. 45th Place. Tulsa Ballet will cover all the costs of the guest companies' performances, including renting the space, rehearsal time on the stage, and technical support like lighting and sound.
"I know many of these organizations are struggling to find the necessary funds to rent a performance space and all the other costs associated with a show," Angelini told UTW's Alicia Chesser, "so we won't charge them anything.
"Offering an up-close look at the kinds of modern dance being created by these companies will provide even more exposure to the art of dance in all forms," Angelini said. "We find that people think they only enjoy classical ballet -- until they come to watch one of our contemporary pieces. Besides, we all feel this is the right thing to do for the dance community in Tulsa."
Good for Business
Angelini, Liggett and the founders of these budding companies all agree that the burgeoning modern dance scene is good for the city of Tulsa.
"It's good for the city economically, because it attracts people to a location and entices them to stay," Alden said. "One of the big problems Tulsa has now is keeping young professionals here. How do you keep those young professionals here? Give them things to do. Give them new and exciting things to see -- things they wouldn't see in Dallas or wouldn't have to move to Dallas to see.
"Also, art, I think, makes a centralized community -- not just dance, but art in general."
Alden said Angelini's support of contemporary dance has given credibility to the art form -- at least among Tulsa audiences -- which has translated to success for the community companies.
"I think it's becoming more relevant to the mainstream audiences," Alden said. "More people can relate to it, therefore it's becoming more popular. Marcello saw that and started bringing in people to choreograph for his dancers more contemporary pieces. It's great. Not a lot of large international ballet companies do that. The fact that he's doing it is huge for the Tulsa community. They hadn't seen that before.
"It is vital for communities to have performances that are accessible to them," McKown-Miller said. "People want to feel they are involved and have something to be proud of."
All of the community companies, most of which operate as 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations and rely on volunteer dancers, directors, producers, technicians and management personnel, hope to one day see a professional modern dance company emerge in Tulsa -- one with a paid management staff and full-time dancers.
And though each hope to be that company, moreover, they just hope for such a company to exist.
"I definitely want to see Portico grow into professional company," Alden said. "If any of the four current companies were to become a professional company, I would be truly, truly excited about it.
"I think it will take time, but in time people will support a professional company. Audiences are starting to come out and see something new and something exciting. It's definitely possible."
"I think that, when you get into the financial side of it all, it's a big undertaking," Roark-McIntosh said. "For me, personally, I didn't want to be managing a company and not able to be artistically invested in what I'm doing. It's more important to me to develop that side of it."
One thing Tulsa shouldn't run out of any time soon is dancers. Liggett estimates there are more dancers living in Tulsa than there are visual artists. But they're not dancing because, until recently, they haven't had any opportunities to do so.
"I think there are a lot of dancers all over -- not just in Tulsa -- who do other jobs," Roark-McIntosh said. "Young girls grow up dancing. That's why I wanted to go to school and study dance. It's what I wanted to do. I feel like I've really made sacrifices and choices to make that my career.
"I think that's part of how dance can thrive in this community, is if we look at our community and (ask ourselves) who those dancers are and what their needs are. Are they looking for an outlet, are they looking to have a break from their kids who are driving them crazy? And then, for me, it's, 'Can we bring them a little artistry?'"
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