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Dance Canvas’ fall concert: 10 snapshots of "next generation" choreography

Dance Canvas celebrates ten years.

Atlanta’s Dance Canvas, as unstoppable as the emerging choreographers it serves, continues to burst at the seams despite the troubled economy. Expanding programs and new community partnerships have brought new challenges to artistic director Angela Harris, who has just announced the 2010-11 lineup for the group’s third annual Fall Performance Series, “Introducing the Next Generation.” Set for November 5 and 6 at the Woodruff Arts Center’s 14th Street Playhouse, the concert will move up to the Main Stage this year; last year’s shows filled Stage 2 beyond capacity.

In keeping with its audience-building mission, the program will comprise about 10 works, “snapshots” of dance styles ranging from contemporary ballet to African-influenced modern dance to technical jazz. This year’s roster of choreographers boasts a more diverse range of ages and experience levels, partly due to a new summer program Harris started for high school-age choreographers, called DC NEXT.

Dance Canvas is not a dance company or a school; it’s a presenting organization that boosts Atlanta’s dance community by supporting emerging choreographers’ artistic and professional development. It’s tough to start a career as a choreographer here. The right people — artistic directors, school directors, potential patrons, for instance — have to see work that’s professionally produced. This is a daunting prospect for an individual artist. It’s difficult to find skilled professional dancers who’ll commit to a long rehearsal process. Theater rental, studio rental, technical staff and marketing are a few of the expenses involved. The end product can suffer if any aspect of the show is not professionally done. Audiences can dwindle, and artistic quality can settle into a fair-to-middling status quo. (Dance Canvas photos by Richard Calmes.)

To overcome those obstacles, Dance Canvas matches emerging choreographers with skilled professional dancers and provides the essentials: a professional venue, production support, rehearsal space and marketing tools. The performance series isn’t like most one-weekend, one-shot dance showcases around town; Dance Canvas works year round to help its choreographers develop their careers and craft. The organization’s rapid growth — its budget increased from $9,100 in the 2008-09 season to about $45,177 in the past year — is largely due to recently formed partnerships and educational programs with groups including the Atlanta Opera, Atlantic Station, the city of Atlanta, Kennesaw State University and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts.

Dance Canvas has partnered with the Network of Ensemble Theaters to bring in Miami-based performing artist Teo Castellanos, whose storytelling blend of African, capoeira, b-boy and break dancing will be featured in NET’s “MicroFestival” at 7 Stages on October 9. On October 10, Dance Canvas will host Castellanos’ creative process and ensemble-building workshop for 2008-10 DC choreographers, college students and other DC NEXT students. Harris hopes Castellanos’ influence will help this year’s participants clarify their stage visions.

Harris (at left), a self-described “ballerina to the core,” has the right stuff — vision, drive, good taste, high standards, business sense and a winning personality — to keep the organization on track. She danced with the Georgia Ballet from 2003 to 2005. Out of a desire to choreograph, Harris co-produced the Georgia Ballet’s first Spectrum program with fellow dancer Micki Weiner, now Dance Canvas’ production director and New York liaison. While at the ballet, Harris also discovered a knack for fund-raising and marketing, skills she has brought to Dance Canvas.

Harris formed Dance Canvas in order to have her work professionally produced. But rapid growth has demanded that she spend most of her time building and managing the organization. Harris has spent so much time fund-raising that she’s had no time to create new work until this year, when she’ll give her contemporary ballet trio “Gravitational Pull” its world premiere. She’s now raising funds for a much-needed support staff, as plans move forward to launch a mentoring program in September and a Dance Canvas concert in her hometown of Baltimore next spring.

Plans are in place to present former Savannah Ballet artistic director James Atkinson’s New York-based Classical Contemporary Ballet Theatre as the November concert’s headliner, similar to John-Mark Owen in 2009 and Alison Seidenstricker in 2008. On Atkinson’s end, scant funds are the only obstacle.

Harris said she’s been so busy coordinating DC NEXT this summer that she had less time than usual to publicize the call for submissions. Out of a pool of 22 applicants, Harris and the board of directors chose about nine, based on artistic quality, innovation, stylistic diversity and the artist’s desire to progress professionally. She discovered that some of this year’s least experienced applicants submitted some of the most interesting choreography. Consequently, Tri-Cities High School senior Whitney Jackson, recent Emory University graduate Leigh Ann Kabatra and former Miami School of the Arts student Deborah Chambers will take on an unprecedented challenge and opportunity — to fine-tune their directing skills and realize their visions by staging work with  professional dancers.

“If I’d had something like Dance Canvas when I was at that age,” Harris remarked, “it probably would have pushed me even further than where I am right now. Innovation in choreography isn’t necessarily an age thing.”

Tickets for “Introducing the Next Generation” will go on sale September 1.

Dance Canvas 2010-11 choreographers (as of this writing):

  • Deborah Chambers
  • Lonnie Davis
  • Katherine Gant
  • Ray Hall
  • Whitney Jackson
  • Leigh Ann Kabatra
  • Marci Lefkoff
  • Apollo Levin
  • D. Norris

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