By Sherri L. McLendon
Modern dancer Susan Collard believes movement has the potential to change the world. So it stands to reason the Asheville-based dance pioneer doesn’t shy away from using dance as a form of commentary: openly political, socially aware, or blisteringly critical.
For instance, the piece she’s currently working on is a series of a dozen dances called “The Decent Women of Calle 58,” based on the work of social anthropologist Christian Russmuttenn. Rassmuttenn spent years documenting the lives of ‘sexservadoras,’ or women in prostitution, in the city of Merida, located in the Yucatan peninsula of southern Mexico. These women endure difficult lives, and their stories are heartbreaking. In telling their stories, Rassmuttenn’s exhibited books and photographs managed to draw the attention of the local authorities, making an already tough situation significantly harsher for the women.
Prostitution is an emotionally charged subject, and tricky to even talk about. Collard believes, however,dance tells a side of the story words and images cannot. Deeply touched by Rassmuttenn’s work, she went to work creating her interpretation, “Calle 58.” In late 2012, the first five pieces from the work were shown to the public – not in the safety of an Asheville dance studio, but in the city of Merida, right in the heart of the controversy.
The performances were attended by several of the sexservadoras in Rassmuttenn’s work. Collard says many of the women were “so pleased that we created art based on their lives, their lives are so amazingly hard.”
“We’re doing social awareness projects, not just pretty dance,” Collard says. “We opened up the doors for other performances there, and for artistic exchanges.”
The completed version of “Calle 58” will premiere in Asheville in the summer of 2013, along with a host of other innovative new works.
Creating challenging, original works like “Calle 58” has been a part of Collard’s global vision for her local company, the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater, from the very start. Founded as an expansion of the work she was already doing at her New Studio of Dance, ACDT has helped to shape the WNC dance community for an entire generation, launching a program of powerful, personal works annually since 1979.
“For a good performance, you need the right dancers to do this work,” Collard says. “It’s very deep and well thought out, so the dancers can’t be frivolous.”
When it comes to local dance culture, it’s not too much to call Collard a visionary. When she founded the New Studio of Dance in Asheville in 1970, the city was a virtual ghost town. The first Bele Chere festival would be years away, and the city’s reputation as a magnet for culture and arts would take decades to form. Collard was part of that first generation of newly arrived artists and performers who would create the blueprint for Asheville’s now-established reputation as an arts-loving town.
But it wasn’t easy. The demand for modern dance in the area was slight, so Collard took a job as a kindergarten teacher at the Jewish Community Center.
“It really wasn’t what I wanted to do,” she explains. “I’m a modern dancer with a lot of ballet background.” Her classes included a lot of movement, which parents found exciting.
“They encouraged me to work with their children after school, and that’s where I started,” Collard says. Those classes grew until “we got too big,” she recalls, prompting a move to a new location at the Manor Inn. Again, classes grew, and more modern dancers began showing up, creating their own classes and collaborating. Finally, one day, Collard and others made a decision. It was time to form a dance company.
The Asheville community didn’t know a lot about modern dance in those days, so the fledgling company did a lot of education and outreach in the WNC area. Company members also restored the Manor Inn building themselves, working nights and weekends and recruiting friends and boyfriends and husbands.
Again, holding the vision hasn’t always been easy.
In the early days, money for modern dance was scarce. Pockets of support came from friends in the community. The company soon became involved with various regional dance festivals, like the American Dance Festival at Duke University, and developed its own touring program. The company also created an international dance exchange program, working with dancers and groups in Cuba, Colombia, Latin America, France, Canada and Mexico.
“When you’re open to that kind of work, and you work with dancers who work hard and take risks, it answers a lot of questions,” says Collard.
Even in an era of shrinking arts funding, the ACDT is a professional dance company with paid performers. The company receives support from individual donors, and from regular community fundraising efforts. The company’s professional status opens doors and helps its performers receive a level of credibility not often found in an independent dance troupe.
“Not only do our dancers get to work with other professional dancers, the community gets to work with them, too, and participate as audience members,” says Collard.
A large part of creating work for a professional dance company is constantly editing, or removing unnecessary movement sequences from dances, and fine tuning the larger work for public performances. Masterpieces of choreography don’t just happen, but must be crafted piece by piece, movement by movement. Innovation requires experimentation, trial and error, and a willingness to risk. It also requires a space for such works to be created and fine-tuned with minimal financial risk. That’s the idea behind the BeBe Theatre, the intimate “black box” performance space where the ACDT’s work is created.
Not all challenges are so easily met. She notes that audiences still prefer willowy dancers in pink ballet slippers to barefoot modern dancers.
“Developing audiences has been difficult for modern dance,” Collard says. “It’s not an easy ticket to sell. People will spend money for music before modern dance, and they will pay money for classical ballet.”
Even something as marketable as the Nutcracker can be a challenge in the modern dance format. The ballet version of the story is a surefire moneymaker for dance companies across the globe. Yet ACDT’s admittedly surreal take on the tale, “The Return of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” took three years to find an audience. Collard and company could have played it safe, but they opted for innovation instead.
As much as she’s seen the local dance community change in the last 40 years, Collard wishes there was more edginess and less safety in new works.
“There are not a lot of really amazing choreographers out there right now,” Collard says. “I encourage dancers to keep working and creating. You’re not going to be an artist by thinking about it, you have to keep working on it. Creating … it’s a process.”
These days, an even greater range of creative possibilities is open due to the presence of Collard’s husband (and ACDT co-director) Giles Collard. Since 1986, Giles has been teaching a more masculine side of modern dance to local students, as well as including saber and foil fencing in the New School of Dance’s curriculum.
“If it hadn’t been for Giles, it would have been hard to continue at times,” says Collard.
Four decades in, Asheville turned out to be a great place for Collard and her company to work and create. Today, the company produces several dance and performing art festivals, including The Fringe Arts Festival and the Men’s Dance Festival.
“Asheville has always allowed me the freedom to be as creative as I want to be, and I couldn’t have done it in New York or Chicago,” says Collard. “It would have been much harder. The community here has allowed me to create the art I wanted to create, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
For more information about Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater performances, the New School of Dance curriculum, and Bebe Theatre’s upcoming shows, visit ACDT.org.
Sherri L. McLendon is a nationally published dance writer, marketing public relations strategist, and conscious dance facilitator living in Western North Carolina. Find her online at sherrimclendon.com,
and at professionalmoneta.com.