Culture News

State of Dance in Metro Phoenix: Pioneers and Innovators Must Look to the Future

The audience was sparse one late October evening at Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix. A curtain opened to reveal dancer Lenna DeMarco seated center stage atop a simple, pine-colored chair. With her short, silver-streaked hair tucked behind her ears, the 67-year-old dance faculty emeritus with Glendale Community College wore a long cotton dress covered in tiny flowers, topped by a tea-colored apron. She was playing Phoebe Brady, a pioneer woman recollecting her journey across the Oregon Trail.

But few people caught the performance, as a dozen or so had cleared out of the theater during intermission. They’d just seen the first half of Reflections – which opened Center Dance Ensemble’s 27th season as the venue’s resident modern dance company. Apparently they weren’t interested in seeing the work, choreographed by Frances Smith Cohen, Center’s founding artistic director.

Now 84, Cohen trained in New York during the early 1950s with modern dance founder Martha Graham and other modern dance innovators including Doris Humphrey. She’s clearly one of Arizona’s own dance pioneers. Cohen co-founded the dance department at University of Arizona in 1972, started Arizona’s Wolf Trap arts education program in 1986, and co-founded the Dance Theater West studio in Phoenix. Through the years, she’s received plenty of accolades, including an Arizona Governor’s Outstanding Artist Award in 2004.

She’s not alone when it comes to people who’ve made multiple-decade contributions to dance in metro Phoenix. There’s Lisa Chow, co-artistic director for Desert Dance Theatre; Ann Ludwig, artistic director for A Ludwig Dance Theatre; and Mary Fitzgerald, associate professor with ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

But times have changed since these women started paving paths for future dancers. 

Cohen’s Graham-infused choreography, marked by sharp, angular shapes and movements emphasizing muscle contraction and release, isn’t resonating with audiences like it used to. Steeped in digital culture and reality TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, contemporary audiences don’t simply have more to choose from, they have everything to choose from. And staples like classic ballet and modern dance still have reputations as being boring, irrelevant, and inaccessible. Cohen says she’s dedicated to preserving Graham’s legacy, but Arizona audiences are turning to new leaders. And they’re ready to embrace dance in different ways.

Where is Phoenix dance headed? Choreographer and dancer Liliana Gomez might have the answer.

Two weeks after Center Dance Ensemble performed Reflections, five dancers culled from Gomez’s artistic circle (not a single dance company) performed works inspired by artist Frida Kahlo during November’s First Friday at the Heard Museum. More than 1,600 people attended – many eagerly gathering around to watch dance amid a flurry of other cultural activities.

The 32-year-old’s work is emblematic of the transformation taking place within the metro Phoenix dance scene. She’s performed as part of Rising Youth Theatre’s Light Rail Plays, during ArtelPhx at the Clarendon Hotel, and for a Soul Justice Project collaboration in Mesa. And audiences have responded with a similar buzz of excitement.

Gomez and other dancers are choosing independent practice over company ties. Audiences are opting for dance performed in alternative rather than traditional spaces. Both are being energized by collaborations across multiple art disciplines, including visual art, even as modern dance classicism gives way to modern dance fusion.

Evidence of the shifting dance landscape abounds. Jessica Rajko, 33, an assistant professor with ASU, choreographed a contemporary dance piece inspired by American drinking culture performed in October at Crescent Ballroom. That’s the same place Angelina Ramirez, 35, presents a free flamenco performance nearly every week. And even Ballet Arizona, whose artistic director Ib Andersen, 61, danced with renowned choreographer George Balanchine, is mixing it up with new works choreographed by company dancers and site-specific pieces for Desert Botanical Garden.

Dance works bridging multiple disciplines have proven especially intriguing. This season, artistic director Lisa Starry, 45, and associate artistic director Nicole Olson, 44, of Scorpius Dance Theatre choreographed work for Stray Cat Theatre’s first musicals. Carley Conder, 42, added Ten Tiny Dances performed on 4-foot by 4-foot stages to CONDER/dance’s Breaking Ground dance and film festival offerings. And Angel Castro, 25, mixed dance with film and fashion for Halo Movement Collective ’s Savage Beauty in November.

Without a doubt, cool things are happening here. But these changes, while exciting, aren’t enough to assure the long-term growth and viability of Phoenix’s dance scene.

For true sustainability, today’s emerging dancers and organizations need to look at the big picture for future dancers and the dance community as a whole rather than focusing solely on creating and sharing their own works. Dancers across generations and genres will need to build more bridges between each other, and their audiences. And they’ll have to take both themselves and their audiences more seriously.

It’s happening in New York City, but other places as well. In Houston, dancers are connecting through an organization called Dance Source Houston. In San Francisco, they’re coming together for conversations about the changing performing arts ecosystem through the Dance Discourse Project presented by Dancers’ Group.

The good news for Phoenix is this: Several area dancers already recognize the need for such things, and they’ve started taking steps to make them happen. Dancer and intermedia artist Julie Akerly, 27, co-founded an artist residency program called [nueBOX] to help emerging artists create and show new works, and she recently hosted what she hopes will be the first of several casual conversations about improving the local dance scene.

The bad news, however, is that most who attended the November gathering in Akerly’s home admitted to being so busy with their own work that they didn’t get out to see other dancers beyond their own circle of friends. That’s despite agreeing that it wasn’t fair to expect others to attend dance performances when dancers themselves weren’t turning out to support them.

Part of what makes the downtown visual arts and theater scenes vibrant is the fact that artists and actors working in different media or companies routinely turn out to see what their peers are creating and performing. But dancers aren’t quite there yet. Ballerinas aren’t hitting hip hop performances. Contemporary performers aren’t checking out classical modern dance shows. Many dancers do make time for supporting other dancers, but they tend to self-segregate by age, style of dance, or geographic region.

There’s a “let’s do our own thing” mentality in much of the metro Phoenix dance community. Sometimes it’s driven by competition for scarce resources such as funding and audiences; other times it’s the artistic impulse towards autonomy. Although this has resulted in some lovely bursts of individual creativity and energy, which make for interesting dance here-and-now, it won’t necessarily foster the consistently strong dance community needed to keep the dance scene growing and improving for future dancers and audiences. “Part of being an artist is the big picture of helping to support the whole community,” says Diane McNeal Hunt, 57, artistic director for ELEVATE/DanceWorks.

Building a stable yet vibrant dance scene will take a community effort, and it’s the dancers themselves, along with choreographers and other dance professionals, who’ll need to make it happen. Having all the players know each other would be a great place to start. There’s even a working model it would be easy for the dance community to engage with or replicate: regular happy-hour style gatherings organized by Phoenix Emerging Arts Leaders (a membership organization for arts professionals across disciplines) that’s hosted powerful brainstorming.

But something more formal, with time for thoughtful reflection and discussion about the metro Phoenix dance scene between both emerging dancers and established organizations, is also needed. Perhaps one of the major performing arts venues could convene a multi-day dance symposium or create an organization that helps dancers share information, support, and resources. It couldn’t hurt for funders to see Phoenix dancers across a broad spectrum working together towards shared strategies.

Emerging dance leaders flirting with ditching traditional models, whether dance companies or performing arts spaces, should consider whether workable alternatives exist for creating ongoing income and audiences. Because frankly, it’s not enough to create exciting works without owning up to the responsibility for assuring dance as an art form continues to grow and thrive here.

At the same time, creating the best systems and connections can’t propel the local dance scene forward in the absence of consistently high-quality work. Phoenix has seen enough dance shows conjuring zombies, asylums, and vampires. Choreographers can do better, and dig deeper. Between outdated prairie pioneers and uber-trendy zombies, there’s a wide swath of repertory we’d like to see more of on Phoenix stages. “Audiences are hungry to be pushed a little harder,” Jessica Rajko says.

Rajko is confident the grassroots dance community can take the Phoenix dance scene to the next level, in part because more dance graduates are staying to contribute to the dance scene instead of fleeing it. “Where else in a city this size can you still make a claim to what this looks like?” she asks. There’s still space to have a voice here, says Rajko. “We’re ripe for some interesting shifts.”
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble