How many idioms could I employ about a dance festival that has happened annually for a decade and a half? I could say that the organizers of the Alabama Dance Festival (ADF) stay on their toes and are never out of step, that they jump for joy and leap to conclusions, year after year after year.
The theme for this year’s ADF is “15 and Fabulous,” commemorating the duration of what started as a mere meeting in Montgomery of a few dance studios from around the state. Now, the festival brings more than 400 dancers from all over Alabama to Birmingham each January, to take classes, attend workshops, perform in their own companies and watch other companies perform. ADF is the flagship project of the Alabama Dance Council, a nonprofit service organization with a mission to promote the study, creation, performance and enjoyment of dance in all forms.
“It is hard to come up with just one thing that I am most proud of,” says Rosemary Johnson, executive director of the Alabama Dance Council. “We’ve come a long way from the very first ‘Alabama Dance Summit,’ as it was called back then.”
She cites three major developments in the festival’s evolution — bringing the country’s finest contemporary dance companies to Alabama to perform and teach; bringing some of the nation’s finest dance teachers to Alabama as guest artists to teach students and provide enrichment opportunities for the state’s professional dance community and engaging the entire community in dance with the free “Dance Across Birmingham” classes.
While the students and participating pros will enjoy the educational opportunities, the public probably gets the greatest benefit from ADF and not just because of the free dance classes — the festival also includes public performances by featured guest companies, plus a “Birmingham Dance Showcase and an “Alabama Dance Showcase,” highlighting the talents of local dancers. The Jan. 20-30 events include almost every imaginable style of dance — hip-hop and West Coast swing, salsa and merengue, Indian folk and dance trance, even creative movement for children ages 3-5. The featured guest company is EVIDENCE, a company founded in Brooklyn, New York, in 1985 by choreographer Ronald K. Brown. The ensemble strives for “a seamless fusion of traditional African dance with contemporary choreography and spoken word.” The goal, you could say, is a literal political movement — using dance to explore contemporary social themes. According to Johnson, Brown has created a singular style by combining contemporary and African dance.
“I have been a fan of Ronald K. Brown’s choreography for several years, and all the pieces fell into place this year to make it possible for EVIDENCE to be here,” Johnson says. “His work is important for its expression of the racial and social injustices of the African-American community, and in particular his latest work, On Earth Together, has an uplifting message of how we all need to work to make the world a better place.”
Sharing the bill with EVIDENCE as a featured guest company at the 2012 festival is Brazz Dance Theater, a Miami-based ensemble that combines contemporary and Afro-Brazilian dance. Specifically for the 2012 festival, the Alabama Dance Council co-commissioned a new work called Cordel, in which Brazz artistic director combines Argentine tango, American hip-hop culture and the Brazilian literary tradition from which the dance takes its name. Part of the point of the ADF is to showcase Alabama talent, but the participation of EVIDENCE and Brazz adds elements of multiculturalism to the festival.
“It is intentional that ADF seeks to support the creation of new work, and many directors of single-choreographer companies are influenced by their global experiences in today’s culture,” Johnson says. “The result is a diverse mix of contemporary dance styles that are interesting and exciting.”
A chance to dance
Still, making dance accessible to as many Alabamians as possible is central to the mission of the Alabama Dance Council. Another feature from past festivals set to be reprised this year is “Dance Across Birmingham,” a day of free dance classes for the entire community. Participants will have a total of 16 classes to choose from on Saturday, Jan. 21: up to two classes in the morning and two in the afternoon, book-ending a lunch and performance showcase featuring nine ensembles.
“We wanted to offer dance classes for the average person in the community that’s not studying dance as a student or a professional,” Johnson says. “We started the event in 2008 to serve people who appreciate dancing for social enjoyment. It made sense to invite local artists to teach classes — it’s a way for them to promote what they do by teaching as well as performing.”
While the rest of the festival includes dancers from around the state, “Dance Across Birmingham” highlights local dance organizations exclusively. The lineup includes the following classes:
– Indian folk dance taught by Shelia Rubin of Natyananda: Dance of India;
– salsa and merengue taught by LatinSoul productions;
– creative movement taught by the Children’s Dance Foundation
– hip-hop dance taught by Winston Strickland of M.A.D. (Music and Dance) Skillz Dance Co.;
– belly dance taught by Megha Gavin of Devyani Dance Company
– contra dance taught by Joyce Cauthen of Birmingham FOOTMAD
– West African dance and traditional praise dance taught by Lavondia Square Bryant of Natifah Dance Company;
– Spanish folk dance taught by Irene Rimer of Corazon Flamenco
– Musical theatre jazz dance taught by Carl Dean
– Michael Jackson-style dance taught by Carl Dean
– Stepping 101 taught by Omicron Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
“We in the Alabama dance community believe that dance is for everyone,” Johnson says. “We want everyone to experience this wonderful art form. It’s fun, it’s social and it’s a great way to stay fit. Experiencing the classes at “Dance Across Birmingham” is the best way to learn what dance is all about. Everyone loves one-stop shopping these days, and the entire festival is a one-stop for experiencing dance.”
The Alabama Dance Festival takes place Jan. 20-30 at various venues, including Samford University’s Wright Center, the BJCC and Children’s Dance Foundation. The festival features showcase performances by 29 dance companies from around the state plus auditions and master classes for dancers; and professional development workshops for artists in every discipline.
“Dance Across Birmingham” is scheduled for 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, in the North Meeting Rooms of the BJCC. Instructors and professionals from nearly a dozen dance organizations offer free classes in a variety of styles, from African dance to salsa, belly dance to hip-hop, musical theater jazz to dance fitness. Pre-registration recommended. Call (205) 602-3599. www.alabamadancecouncil.org.
Brazz Dance Theater, a guest company participating in the ADF, performs at the Samford Wright Center at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, with a pre-performance talk titled “Inside the Dance” starting at 7:35 p.m. EVIDENCE, the festival’s featured guest company, performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, in the Samford Wright Center, with a pre-performance talk by artistic director Ronald K. Brown starting at 7:35 p.m. Tickets for both shows cost $20-$45; receive a discount when you purchase tickets to two or more ADF events. Call (205) 726-2853 or visit www.samford.edu/wrightcenter
The Alabama Dance Showcase, which includes performances from 20 dance companies from around the state, is scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Wright Center. General admission is $17; receive a discount when you purchase tickets to two or more ADF events. Call (205) 726-2853 or visit www.samford.edu/wrightcenter.