POSTED ON AUGUST 8, 2012:
Exchange of Ideas
Dance festival reaches out to the artists
Something fascinating is headed our way.
The Exchange Dance Festival, presented by The Bell House, is a festival of modern dance focusing not so much on the performance of dance, but on the process of creating it. So for those of you curious about the inner workings of the creative process, this is just the thing for you.
Rachel Johnson, who started the festival in 2009 and now serves as its executive director, as well as artistic director of The Bell House, spoke recently about some of the festival's talking points.
"The dance world in general is kind of blooming with these kinds of festivals," she said. "It's the main way that modern dancers can get their work out there without having the support of major companies."
While we all wish it weren't true, when an artist, be it a dancer, a musician, a painter, a writer, doesn't have funding, or some sort of company behind them providing monetary compensation for what they're doing, they have to have day jobs to pay the rent. Still, an artist with a day job is still an artist, and with artistic ability comes the need to use it.
"There are so many dancers that don't have a major company behind them that can pay their dancers all the time," Johnson said. "But they still want to dance and work. So festivals are a way for dancers to continue to learn and grow."
And learn and grow they will. It seems that one of the unusual things about this particular festival is the classes and workshops offered to dancers.
"A lot of festivals don't, but we have classes, and they're geared toward advanced dancers," Johnson said. "We have workshops that are sometimes really specific, like Dancing for the Camera. And I've intentionally put a Q and A and a Meet and Greet in each concert. People don't always make connections with modern dance, and so this is a way to try to make it reach people."
The Exchange Dance Festival, in addition to being a place for dancers to gather and give each other feedback on their work and their creative processes, is the flagship event of Johnson's Bell House, not so much a dance company as a network.
"I'd say it's a dance cooperative, and by that, I mean it's an umbrella organization that can support and house artistic exchanges between artists, dancers, visual artists, musicians, artists who want to collaborate on projects," she said.
"This is our big event every year," she continued. "Every other event or performance we have is usually an artistic venture that I'm involved in. I'll get together with another artist in town and put something together to perform out of town, but the Exchange Festival is our main event."
The Exchange Dance Festival may be young, but it's certainly doing its job as a flagship event according to Johnson.
When Johnson started this in 2009, she had a little trouble filling out all the concerts with dancers. That's not the case anymore.
"I do know that from 2009 to 2011 I went from inviting people and having to fill the concerts to having to turn people away and getting submissions from 12 states," she said.
"There are a lot of people who are really excited about the festival in Tulsa," Johnson said. "We all do stuff together around town, so this is kind of a grass-roots kind of thing right now."
Brooke Schlecte, a dancer with Waco's Out On A Limb dance company, is a close friend of Johnson and sings loud praises about the festival and its benefits.
"I actually had a dream the other night that I could take a once-a-week technique class from my grad school," she began. "You really get to where you miss those dance tech classes. It's really neat to be able to see and experience things and sort of get your brain going again."
In doing so, Schlecte and her dancing ilk all come away from the festival with fresh inspiration.
"I get a new shell. I get energized again, I get new ideas," she said. She's attended both previous festivals, so she knows what to expect. "I'm like, 'Oh, there are other people doing this work, too -- it's not just me.' I get to remember that I'm doing something that matters and I need to keep going. I always have a great feeling afterward."
Schlecte perhaps summed up the festival best when she commented on its name.
"It's called Exchange," she said. "All the performers and choreographers in the community have a chance to have a dialog and have an exchange of ideas. We get people to talk and we get them together to think about it and ask questions."
A big part of the exchange, according to Johnson, revolves around the process of creating dance. Artists are able to get feedback on works-in-progress if they so desire, or they might be able to test the waters of something brand new with a small audience that is already on their side.
"A lot of times, these festivals are all about just performing your works and showing it to somebody," she said. "What ends up happening is a group comes in and does its thing. They pack up and leave, and there's not any talk about process or anything."
In an effort to avoid exactly that, Johnson has built in elements into the schedule that will be conducive to artistic growth.
"We have networking times so that you can talk about things like process," she said. "It's also a way to be accountable for your work. We've had artists in the past get asked questions in the Q and A and weren't able to talk about what they were doing. We see you're talented, but we want to see what you're doing and why. And how."
So the Exchange Dance Festival comes to Tulsa Ballet's Studio K this weekend. In addition to the classes for dancers, there are three performances for the public.
"The show starts at 6 o'clock," Johnson said. "It's the same show on Friday as Saturday. Then there's a no-frills show on Saturday afternoon. There are a couple of pieces where the artists wanted a more intimate space, so the no-frills show will be in a studio. So there are two shows and three opportunities to see them."
Sunday will feature an improv jam, a couple of hours of dancers just doing their thing, which seems like it might be a bunch of people randomly shaking it.
It won't be.
"Improv jam is using improvisational skills," Johnson said. "Improv has to be practiced. It's about listening to other people with your body. You can't just go in there and do whatever the crap you want."
Perhaps most fascinating would be simply watching the developments on that improv jam floor.
The Exchange Dance Choreography Festival takes place August 10-12 at Tulsa Ballet's Studio K. Classes and workshops begin Friday morning, with performances open to the public Friday and Saturday at 6pm, Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 9am. Tickets for dancers and audience members are available by phone at 918-549-1231. For more information, visit exchangefestival.org.
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