News Best foot forward

Contemporary dance takes a big leap toward San Antonio's center stage

During the past 10 years or so, modern dance has been suspiciously absent from the local arts scene. Aside from the occasional touring company, there are few opportunities for audiences to see contemporary dance. How is it, in a city this size, that one of the major art forms can be so poorly represented? Answers are complex and largely speculative, sometimes downright subjective, but there's one point on which most dancers and choreographers agree: Somethin's gotta give. Perhaps the situation has reached a critical mass, perhaps it's coincidence, or perhaps it's just the nature of artists to continue their work in spite of the circumstances, but in the past year there has been renewed energy in the modern-dance community.

Members of the Modern Dancer's Co-Laboratory (from front) Amber Ortega-Perez, Carrie Vilana, Laura Vriend, Dora Ruffner, and Ellen Chappell. The 14 member group works as a collective to support each other and develop modern dance in San Antonio. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Some of that new energy springs from old sources. The San Antonio Dance Umbrella was founded in 1992 to "ensure the presence of dance as a vital and growing art form," according to the mission statement. Like many of its member organizations, SADU suffered bouts of financial and administrative woe, but concerted efforts over the past few years to restructure the efficacy and credibility of the organization have paid off.

Executive Director Suzanne Dunmire is a tireless advocate of dance in all forms. Her main task is to build a network for dancers, choreographers, dance companies, and audiences. Recently ensconced in a new office at Radius, San Antonio's newest cooperative art space, SADU helps to produce weekly Friday night performances in the building. Ongoing collaborations with Jump -Start Theatre provide a venue for Works In Progress, and SADU's excellent website is becoming a powerful resource for studios, dancers, and choreographers nationwide - bringing a lot of attention to dance in San Antonio.

While modern dance is only a piece of the SADU pie, collaboration could be the key to introducing new audiences to modern forms, for example, Georgina Morgan & Co.'s Crystallization and Improvisation, commissioned by the McNay Art Museum to complement the Matisse Jazz "cut outs" currently on view in its galleries. "In these particular works, Matisse was working with flat, 2-dimensional, graphic images. The abstraction of the contours and lines, the juxtaposition of colors and shapes, give them a dynamic quality, which inspired the spatial design of the dance piece," says Morgan. With four dancers and props derived from the artworks, the formal correspondence between the choreography and Matisse's compositions might engage an audience more accustomed to static images. Performances will take place September 25 and 29, with live jazz by David Villanueva.

Building a successful a modern-dance community in San Antonio also requires a network. The Modern Dancer's Co-Laboratory, formed less than a year ago with four founding members, has grown to 14 in just a few months, including several highly trained dancers who have recently moved to San Antonio. Founding member Amber Ortega-Perez says: "I was disappointed with how modern-dance companies seemed to rise, and then flit away. I was going to Dallas, Houston, and out of state to show my work in professional settings. I knew there were more of us, we just didn't all know each other." Essentially a cooperative, the group meets weekly to discuss potential new works and performances and, in general, support the development of modern dance from the inside out.

There's still one niggling problem. Who's the audience? Another complex question. Plenty of studios provide children the standard ballet-tap-jazz curriculum, and they're doing an excellent job, but few offer modern-dance technique. Since the performing arts require an audience, it seems logical to assume that the success of even touring performances would, to some degree, depend on a local recognition of style, technique, and expertise. If it's not even happening in the studios, how can it filter through to the community at-large?

Dora Ruffner and Jayne King are poised to bring the Alamo Community College District into the mix. Teachers at Palo Alto and Northwest Vista, respectively, they are collaborating on guest performances, curriculum development, public workshops and events, even semesters abroad for dance students. Palo Alto has recently begun offering an associate's degree in dance, and the pair are eager to engage in collaborations and public performances. Both are involved with the Co-Lab, as is Georgina Morgan. Some of the more traditional companies, such as the new Ballet Conservatory of South Texas, are incorporating contemporary choreography into their performances.

Maybe, if enough of these threads are pulled together, modern dance will take a more prominent position in the local art pantheon.

By Diana Lyn Roberts


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