“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.”
That’s the way the movie “The Wizard of Oz” famously resolves, with Dorothy deciding that there really is no place like home. It’s a lesson that Atlanta dancer Maryn Whitmore seems to have taken to heart.
Frustrated by the lack of available inexpensive local venues for dance, Whitmore has built an outdoor stage right in her own backyard. Dubbed Skwhirlhaus, the new, intimate venue in the Atlanta neighborhood of Kirkwood will host a full season of contemporary dance performances from April to October. The opening weekend, this Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20, will feature a program of work by Spelman College Assistant Professor of Dance T. Lang and Atlanta-based artists MaryGrace Phillips and Jessica Sias Wilson.
“I just kind of had a vision one day,” says Whitmore of her decision to build the stage. “I was out in my yard with my little girl, and I had this idea for making new work. But I just couldn’t wrap my head around renting rehearsal space, finding a theater and all of that. I just looked at my yard and I thought, ‘Well, there’s room here.’ ”
The thought simmered for a while, and then she saw a documentary about well-known choreographer Anna Halprin, who built a deck for dance behind her California home. “It all seemed to fit together,” Whitmore explains. “I realized someone else has done it, so I could do it too.”
A friend, Malina Rodriguez of Dance Truck, the Atlanta group that presents dance using a flatbed truck as a mobile venue, encouraged her in her vision and suggested that she use the Internet site Kickstarter to raise funds. Whitmore made a video explaining the concept, put it online, and the month-long campaign easily exceeded its goal of $3,500.
Atlanta artist and outdoor stage designer Richard Sudden built the stage last summer out of marine-grade plywood. Measuring about 30 feet wide and 25 feet deep and covered with four layers of porch paint, it’s built to withstand the elements and has a surface appropriate for barefoot dance. There’s a ramp on one side to make it wheelchair accessible, and the stage wraps partly around a large oak tree in the yard.
As for the unusual name Skwhirlhaus, Whitmore explains, “As long as I can remember I’ve always liked rodents. Squirrels have always fascinated me.” When she met her husband, she was surprised to find that he shared her fascination. “The first time I went to his home, he had all these little squirrel figurines. It was just a sign. And because we have that in common, people just give us squirrel things: candles and tchotchkes of weirdness.” Their house became known among friends as “the squirrel house.” She liked the spelling “skwhirl” because it has the suggestion of movement in it, like the meditative movement of whirling dervishes, and the spelling “haus” suggests the forward-thinking modernity of the Bauhaus movement.
Whitmore has hosted a few “hauswarming” and preview events and says the stage is now ready for its first official season, featuring mostly Atlanta-based performers she chose from an Internet call for proposals. The public is invited to attend; audience members should bring blankets or low folding chairs for sitting. Admission to each event is donation-based, with any profits shared between the performers and Skwhirlhaus.
She says she has big plans for the venue above and beyond the annual season. For now, the stage is lit by simple clamp lights and the sound comes from a home receiver and speakers, but the goal is to eventually build more elaborate lighting and a more substantial sound system. Whitmore also hopes eventually to add Skwhirlhaus dance classes, artist exchanges, workshops and perhaps, somewhere down the road, even a small living space for a Skwhirlhaus artist-in-residence.
“I love the concept of bringing people to my home,” she says. “When the sun starts to go down and people are back there, it’s just really magical. I think I’m doing my life’s work. I just love to see all the cross-pollination of people getting involved in each other’s work and supporting each other. And I can share with people in this way. I used to have this feeling I had to take over the world with my art. But it’s not even necessarily about the art. It’s about asking people to share and be a part of something.”
Skwhirlhaus events take place at 327 Sisson Avenue, Atlanta, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Check the Facebook page for updates regarding any inclement weather. The schedule:
April 19 & 20: T Lang, MaryGrace Phillips, Jessica Sias Wilson
May 17 & 18: Joel Ballard, Marymay Impastato, Onur Topal Sumer
June 21 & 22: Emily Christianson, Blake Dalton, Meg Gibbs, Cherrise Wakeham
July 19 & 20: Abracachupacabra, Blake Dalton, Marymay Impastato, Kristyn McGeehan, Bala Sarasvati
August 30 & 31: Mallory Baxley, Amanda Byars, Juana Farfan, Allison Gantz
September 20 & 21: Alisa Mittin, Beth Del Nero, Julie Rothschild, Kala Seidenberg
October 18 & 19: Gathering Wild, Tara Leigh Hemmer, Amelia Reiser, Erik Thurmond