Artists need support. The support of an audience, the support of patrons, the support of their community. But more than anything, artists need the support of other artists. Creative work often happens in the quiet space of a private studio, but what do you do when you’re stuck? Or when you’ve made a breakthrough? Or when you want to get some perspective, or be challenged, or just talk?

Particularly in parts of the country where there’s not necessarily an artist on every block, it can be difficult for dancemakers to find a truly supportive environment. Enter the EXCHANGE Dance Choreography Festival, which Rachel Bruce Johnson began after she surveyed the “no man’s land” that confronted her upon completing graduate school. “I knew there wasn’t a lot I was going to in Tulsa — neither of the major universities had dance departments at the time, for example — so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I got there,” she said. “I didn’t want to run a company, but I’m a choreographer — I wanted to make work and do work and take advantage of the great relationships I made in grad school.” Here’s Johnson’s history of how the festival started and what she hopes it achieves.

I established The Bell House as an umbrella for whatever creative work I ended up doing, and one of the first things that came to mind was a festival, modeled after the ACDFA [American Collegiate Dance Festival], which I’d been to a few times. Amy Roark-McIntosh was instrumental in making the festival possible. She offered ORU as place to host it in 2009, a perfect example of the amazing supportiveness of this community. The original vision was to make work for people who I knew were great artists but who didn’t get a lot of work, and to make a place for training in contemporary dance here in Tulsa. I’m totally open to it changing over the years — what would it be like, say, to bring in a choreographer for two weeks to create new work on local dancers? The faculty will switch up over the years too; right now I’m wanting everyone to know who I know because I think they’re pretty awesome and have a lot of richness to give, and maybe some new relationships will start.

This is the way art is perpetuated — through people. The most interesting thing to me is the relationship of artist to artist, and artist to audience, and audience to audience. If we don’t have these “people” connections, there’s no point in making art. It becomes a burden.

Amy Querin and Joseph Orta, Fresno Dance Collective

I spoke to Amy Querin about this “point” question. She’s a California-based choreographer and dancer whose new company, the Fresno Dance Collective, will be performing August 6 at The Quorum, the festival’s gala concert. Here’s her astute analysis of why events like this matter.

I think all artists build their own support systems and lifelines that they can reach out to for inspiration, feedback, support, etc.  Because of the unique contexts of the dance field, we really need each other, if only for the moral support to answer the never-dying question “why do I do this?”  Being a choreographer requires equal parts vulnerability and boldness; we are forced to be paradoxes within ourselves.

EXCHANGE, and festivals like it, are imperative for artists to stay fresh, to be inspired by others in our field, and to share our works with the local communities hosting such festivals.  (In this case, the Tulsa dance audiences.)  I am always incredibly inspired by the choreographic works of others on stage, but what ends up resonating with me the most are the lingering conversations of new ideas and “shop talk” from other artistic directors about industry issues (finding good dancers, producing good work, involving technology, collaborating with other artists, etc).  If you can imagine choreographers as “techies,” EXCHANGE will be full of side-bar nerd-war conversations. 🙂

Some people travel to see the world, and some people travel to see themselves in a different part of the world.  EXCHANGE is a chance to see myself and my work through the lens of other people in my field.  It’s an incredibly humbling and clarifying experience.  It keeps me going all year long.

Querin’s company is bringing two pieces to the gala, “To Have Lived” and “FITS! together,” which was reviewed this way in March 2011 by Donald Munro in the Fresno Bee:

Amy Querin and Joseph Orta, Fresno Dance CollectiveThe concert closed with Querin’s “FITS! together,” built through a physical exploration of a tantrum.  Featuring two dancers … it’s an intriguing, darkly tinged, at times furiously paced back-and-forth between male and female. Querin has a keen sense of what you might call the non-verbals of dance: the angles of two heads in relationship to each other in an embrace; the tracking (and sometimes avoidance) of the eyes; the rigidity of the hands. Lurching from steamy sensuality to outright disdain, the through-line of the relationship between these two individuals in the piece isn’t a gentle arc, but instead a zig-zag. That makes it highly charged for the audience — and a fine way to close a highly charged show.

Sounds good, right? And here’s what L. Brooke Schlecte, director of Out on a Limb Dance Company in Texas, had to say:

L. Brooke Schlecte, Out on a Limb Dance

I really appreciate Rachel and The Bell House’s mission to bring artists together.  Upon leaving grad school, it was hard to find a community of artists to continue to work and learn with.  Having a dance company isn’t enough. I always leave refreshed. I begin questioning again, curious about new ideas, and ready to work it out. It is refreshing to see other people work, teach, perform, interact, create, respond, and process dance differently than I do. In one way it reaffirms my philosophies and in another way it reminds me and comforts me with the wild possibilities.

Schlecte’s work with OoLD is all about exploring, improvising, discussing, and collaborating (much of it long-distance). And asking questions — big ones.

“How can I make this in a new way?” (New for me and what I have seen.) “How else could I communicate this?” “How can I break a rule?” (One that I have imposed on myself without realizing it or a dance rule.) And lastly and most importantly, “Who cares?” It is a harsh question but essential.

These are serious folks who’ll be having serious conversations — with words and with movement — over the course of this weekend. In addition to the 11 works to be presented in the gala performance on Saturday night, there’s a whole lot more going on at EXCHANGE this weekend. There are many classes offered over three days, taught by the visiting choreographers, with titles like “Ballet Combinations in the Modern World,” “Performance Process,” and “Non-Traditional Partnering.” There are also two adjudicated concerts, featuring 21 original works by choreographers from all over the country, with a feedback session on Sunday afternoon and prizes awarded to the best works of the festival.

The public is invited to attend both the gala performance and reception (7:30 pm on August 6) and the adjudicated concerts (7:30 pm on August 5; 2 pm on August 6). All shows will happen at the Walter Arts Center at Holland Hall, with tickets available at the door. And any dancer can drop in to any class for just $12.

Education? Inspiration? Feedback? What more could an artist want? For dancers and dancemakers from Tulsa and beyond, the EXCHANGE festival is a rare opportunity to explore their craft, to breathe some fresh creative air, to move and be moved together. Members of local groups Tulsa Modern Movement, Soluna Performing Arts Group, Portico Dans Theatre, and Living Water, as well as many other folks from around the area, will be taking part as performers, choreographers, students, and teachers at the festival. I’ll be  there with them, taking class and participating in the gala and soaking it all in. Stay tuned — I’ll post along the way.

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