ArtsATL > Dance > Preview: Dance Canvas’ Angela Harris talks classical ballet and finding her niche in Atlanta

Preview: Dance Canvas’ Angela Harris talks classical ballet and finding her niche in Atlanta

Soaring in Kristy Nilsson's "Entanglements." (Photos by Scott Nilsson)
Soaring in Kristy Nilsson's "Entanglements." (Photos by Scott Nilsson)
Soaring in Kristy Nilsson’s Entanglements. (Photos by Scott Nilsson)

Angela Harris’ new ballet, Crossing Over, is a product of six years’ labor and a sense of what’s missing in a community.

As executive artistic director of Dance Canvas, Harris oversees application reviews for the organization’s annual emerging choreographer’s performance series. Submissions run a gamut of styles and idioms ranging from ballet and modern dance to jazz and tap; but in recent years, she noticed ballet choreographers submitted only contemporary works.

“In every panel, I thought, I just want to see ballet,” she said, referring to the formal beauty of classical and neoclassical styles. “I’ve been in love with ballet my whole career. I miss seeing it.” Harris explained that her new piece, set to music by Claude Debussy, plays with the divide between classical and contemporary ballet.

“I have been struggling with why so many ballet companies weren’t presenting new classical ballet choreographers,” said Harris, who then took cues from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s mix of new and old programming. “I think there is a way to be new, updated and innovative in a classical form.”

Crossing Over is part of Cocktails and Choreography, a two-weekend series of informal showings at Fabrefaction’s Blackbox Theatre. Each weekend will offer a distinct program and a featured cocktail, along with a chance to mingle with artists afterward. On July 10 and 11, Ballet Re-MIXed will present classically based works by Harris, Kristy Nilsson and Georne Aucoin. On August 21 and 22, A Modern Collective, directed by Dana Parrott Woodruff, will offer modern dance works by Woodruff, Lonnie Davis, Katherine Gant and Ellen Tshudy. All but one of the works are new.

Jessie Williams and Daniel White perform in a new ballet by Kristy Nilsson set to music by Astor Piazzola
Jessie Williams and Daniel White perform in a new ballet by Kristy Nilsson set to music by Astor Piazzola.

Dance Canvas is one of four Atlanta dance organizations to offer performances in the city in July, enlivening what was once a sleepy summer dance scene. GloATL will present “gestures that soon will disappear,” a new series of public, site-specific works that begins today. LIFT will present its annual concert at the Woodruff Arts Center’s Alliance Stage July 26, and the Lucky Penny will offer Blake Beckham’s Dearly Departures at the Ferst Center’s Dramatech Theater beginning July 24.

All four groups have made unique contributions to a growing dance scene; each has faced similar challenges. In a recent interview, Harris reflected on Dance Canvas’ six-year history and her experiences building a dance organization in Atlanta, from her first impetus to the difficulties she has faced, and what Harris has found to be essential. Later this month, Daryl Foster will share his viewpoint as founder and artistic director of LIFT.

Harris began forging a path in Atlanta after a career with New York City’s Urban Ballet Theater, Columbia City Ballet and the Georgia Ballet. But she quickly discovered how hard it is for independent choreographers to produce work without easy access to a venue, studio space or professionally trained dancers. She founded Dance Canvas to provide this support to choreographers like herself; she also worked a youth program and an audience-building mission into her plan.

The first showcase debuted in 2008 in the 14th Street Playhouse’s tiny Studio 2. By its third year, the concert doubled its house size, moving to the Playhouse’s Main Stage; next January, the production will appear in the 833-seat Rialto Center for the Arts.

Along the way, Americans for the Arts gave Harris a 2011 American Express Emerging Leader Award. The following year, the City of Atlanta gave Harris the Emerging Artist Award in Dance.

Last summer, Cocktails and Choreography debuted at Fabrefaction Theater as part of a three-week dance workshop for select high school and college-age students. With works by Lonnie Davis, Tracy Vogt and the late Antonio Sisk, the informal showing was an inspired convergence of youthful enthusiasm and seasoned modern dance expertise. This year, to give choreographers time for longer pieces, it has expanded into two distinct programs.

Until now, Harris’ initial desire to choreograph has often taken a back seat to the intricate demands of directing Dance Canvas. Harris is finally at a point, after six years’ building the organization, where she can return focus to her passion for making dances.

There have been other challenges, such as the need for financial support. But Harris doesn’t view them as such, rather, as “things that are always going to be there,” she said. “You have to figure out a way around them.”

From the start, Harris diversified the organization’s funding streams and sought mutually beneficial partnerships, such as the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which helps sponsor DC NEXT, a program that trains and educates high school students and is a source of production interns. Dance Canvas has also partnered with the Rialto Center, Kennesaw State University and the National Black Arts Festival.

As for essentials of building a dance organization in Atlanta, Harris named three. First: identify a need in the community that’s not currently being filled by a similar organization. “Be original in your thinking,” she said. “With Dance Canvas, gloATL, the Lucky Penny and LIFT, we’re working in the same realm, but we’re filling vastly different needs. That’s why we can operate cohesively and grow at the same time.”

Second, she said, is “get a business partner, someone who knows (about) professional management.” In a city where few dancers, outside of Atlanta Ballet, are paid a living wage, a well-organized, well-run organization is more attractive to potential patrons; it is vital for the artistic wing to thrive.

Third, members of the dance community cannot afford to be in competition with one another. “We have to champions for each other,” she said, citing the city’s theater community, a tight network where actors frequently see each other’s shows and publicize one another’s productions.

“The way to grow a community is not just to create dance, but to create dance audiences,” Harris continued. “As a dance community, we can do a better job of that. If we work more with collaboration — and don’t become insular — but try to grow a community, we’ll see bigger results.”

Dance Canvas

Cocktails & Choreography

7 p.m. July 10 and 11. Ballet Re-MIXed. Works by Angela Harris, Kristy Nilsson and Georne Aucoin.

7 p.m. August 21 and 22. A Modern Collective. Works by Dana Parrott Woodruff, Lonnie Davis, Katherine Gant and Ellen Tshudy.

All shows will take place at Fabrefaction Theatre Black Box.

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