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Making the Dream Work

Jacksonville Dance Theatre moves the heart & mind

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"We are not a ballet company,” states Jacksonville Dance Theatre’s Executive Director Katie McCaughan.

We’re sitting in the small, utilitarian office inside the Florida Theatre Building which is home to the troupe, and we’re talking about what it means, ideologically as well as logistically, to have a professional contemporary dance company in Jacksonville. We laugh a lot, but underneath the laughter is hope, resilience and the knowledge that the only way to help the city embrace contemporary art in all its forms is to put bodies where belief is.

“Our aesthetic is informed and shaped by Rebecca Levy and Tiffany Fish’s overarching vision. In terms of our sentiment, our mission, that thing that drives and underlines what we do, is a commitment to each other as friends, artists and diverse bodies … humans who have something to offer,” answers McCaughan when asked about the ideas that shape the way JDT moves through the world.

Dancers Tiffany Fish, Rebecca Levy and Katie McCaughan are founders of the nonprofit Jacksonville Dance Theatre. The trio founded the company when all three were dance instructors who weren’t yet ready to give up making art. That was 2012; since then, the troupe has expanded its footprint, arguably becoming the city’s most cutting-edge performers making some of the most compelling art in the Southeast.

“We started making work,” recalls Levy, “about summer 2012 … we would make great works together, but we didn’t have a codified company or language. We were just really dedicated to the art form. So when we progressed past that, when we decided to make work for the purpose of a company … it wasn’t, like, one day we were, like, ‘let’s make some art.’ We were already kind of doing it.”

That early conversation took place, as the trio recalls it, at McCaughan’s kitchen table over fish tacos and wine. “I asked: ‘Do you guys want to start a dance company?’ And they said yes,” recounts Artistic Director Rebecca Levy, with a chuckle.

It wasn’t as happenstance as all that, though. Levy reveals she purchased the domain name before relocating here, while still in Los Angeles. Clearly, Levy had some prescience about what she wanted to do. And though the three are highly respected in Jacksonville’s dance community, they’re not the only dancers who’ve returned, or moved here, for a variety of reasons. Additionally, the dance programs at Jacksonville University and FSCJ (where each of the three now teach or have taught) have strong programs, and the presence of a professional dance company is an opportunity for young dancers to deepen their connection to the craft.

When asked what the meat of their mission is, McCaughan leaps in. “We try to value each other and uplift. We try to incubate the younger dancers who are coming up in our company,” she explains. With a track record that includes continued growth, collaborations (national and international), community outreach and grants from The Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, the city of Jacksonville and PNC Arts Alive grant, they’re doing just that. The incremental but steady success JDT has enjoyed is a marker of its deep, abiding commitment to smart, inclusive ideas, often marked with and by collaboration and risk-taking.

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still remember the first JDT performance I saw, held in the Episcopal School of Jacksonville’s theater. I walked in just as McCaughan was finishing up her opening remarks. Her comments centered around the idea that dance exists only in the moment of its making. It’s a concept that has stuck with me for years: this idea of an utterly fleeting form, that perhaps more than any other art, needs to be witnessed in person. But more than reinforcing the necessity of viewing art—any kind of art—in person, it forcibly removes dance from static presentations so dramatically seen in still photography and represents it as a living form.

As I settled into a seat toward the back of the auditorium, this perception lingered but, as the performances started, I felt removed from linear time, as if I were being granted the privilege of watching something sacred and deeply personal unfold.

Since then, I’ve tried to make it to as many of JDT’s performances as possible. The result has been that the opportunity to bear witness to the company’s evolution is also a tangible reminder of the value of arts. It’s not so much about dollars and cents, about new condos and convention centers—it’s about the way art impacts the spirit. The way that a heart can soar when a dancer leaps, or convulsions of laughter can grip when a particularly absurd scene (dancing donuts, for instance) is danced.

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While we’re here, though, let’s briefly—really briefly—touch on dollars, cents and community engagement. In the approximately five years that JDT has been in operation, it has always been a professional troupe. The dancers are paid, as are any guest artists, collaborators, designers or composers and, according to JDT’s records, because of its professional mien, the company had an economic impact of $83,551 since inception.

In terms of business, that number might feel modest, but in terms of what that means for a cultural organization in Jacksonville, it is huge. At a time when the Cultural Council is being lambasted for “mismanaged administrative expenses” and a local museum has sold off a major asset (Joan Mitchell’s Iva) in an attempt to raise funds, to be in the black speaks as much to the tenacity of the troupe as it does to members’ ethics and commitment.

Yet, the value of art is essentially ineffable and impossible to quantify. “I am often asked to articulate why art—and specifically dance—is inherently valuable, or to describe what a return on an investment in the arts would look like,” says McCaughan. “These are fine and good questions that I often have a very simple answer for. Why should we value and invest in the arts? So that they exist. So that the people who have dedicated their lives to being in art, teaching that art, producing that art, are valued. And not just valued with praise. Accolades don’t pay rent or support a family. How do we begin to shift the inherent value we give to the arts to a tangible value the artists who contribute their talents and energies to their communities can actually feel? There are very few other professions that we as a society ask people to do for free. I believe in providing sustainable opportunities for dance-making, health and wellness, and community and cultural advancement here in Jacksonville.”

In addition to bringing the kind of contemporary dance most often experienced in larger more cosmopolitan areas, the women rely on the friendships they’ve built to bring singular collaborations to the stage. In September alone, the dance theater is presenting two programs, each of which is a joint effort. With these works, there are opportunities for Jacksonville aficionados to see internationally lauded artists, with significant pedigrees.

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On Saturday, Sept. 8, JDT takes the stage with the Los Angeles-based Nancy Evans Dance Theatre. It’s especially exciting, explains Levy, because NEDT draws from the dance lineage of Hanya Holm. Holm is considered to be one of the “Big Four” founders of American modern dance, but she’s less well-known to those outside the dance community.

Creative Director Tiffany Fish speculates this comes from Holm’s methodology. “For me, what distinguishes Hanya Holm within the pioneers of modern dance is also what makes her one of the less-recognizable members of this distinguished group. Instead of asking her students and performers to copy her codified movement language, she gave them agency to create from their own experience and the freedom to explore what was authentic to them. She was interested in using movement as a form of communication instead of a visual portrayal of form.”

Indeed, in She Was Here, a piece Fish choreographed for the company this year, she seems to have taken cues from Holm’s methods. “I didn’t have a lot of time to make a piece that I wanted to be pretty long [it ended up being about 16 minutes], and I only had a month to make it. So I knew I had to generate movement material based off of my performers. I had to allow their bodies to create something in real time and then to take that and instead of being a choreographer ... [I was] choreographic director,” she explains.

Later, on Sept. 26, JDT performs the world premiere of the piece Did I Remember, a new work by internationally acclaimed choreographer and media artist Jonah Bokaer. It’s the culmination of a multi-week residency with Long Road Projects.

Bokaer has been a professional dancer (dance-maker, as The Australian turned the phrase) since age 18, and a dancer in Merce Cunningham’s company. In addition to his personal practice, in 2007 he and John Jasperse founded the Center for Performance Research in NYC, which gives time and space to dancers and performers developing contemporary works seated in performance. In a New York Times interview, Bokaer said, “The belief is that the center is a response to crisis, the crisis being that it is really hard to live and to make work here.”

Though Bokaer was talking about living in and making work in New York, he could—with a little tweak—be talking about the First Coast. The changed language being, of course, that it’s not hard to live here (we have it on good authority it’s easier here), but to make a living as an artist here, especially an artist doing challenging, hard to monetize, contemporary work, is nigh impossible.

So it may be exceptionally poignant and fitting that this extraordinarily committed, compassionate artist is here now. LRP founder Aaron Garvey said, “The partnership of the two organizations is meant to strengthen the contemporary art program in the Southeast U.S. while bolstering the profile of Northeast Florida.”

Did I Remember is centered around 1920s jazz club Lenape Tavern, housed within the former Genovar’s Hall in LaVilla. These days, it stands quasi-forgotten, the second-floor brick walls supported by steel beams, a skeletal nod to bygone dignity. As a failed preservation attempt, it’s an apt metaphor for the quasi-care the city gives LaVilla.

For his part, Bokaer reflects, “Friendships, and being present for each other during the big events in life, formed the basis for this collaboration with the new chapter of Aaron and Stevie’s organization, called Long Road Projects. I think this new project in Jacksonville is the first time I have approached a curator (it was me, approaching Aaron) based on a desire for continued work together. I made the initial call because I trust him. Our project will also nurture my two-dimensional work in the visual arts, during a moment when I hope to revisit, expand and commemorate that practice, which is less publicly celebrated. Did I Remember, this new two-part work for stage at Jacksonville Dance Theatre, and on the page with master printmaker Patrick Miko, made in collaboration with my longtime colleague Szabi Pataki, is dedicated to the absent, erased or invisible performing artists who entertained at the now-abandoned building Genovar’s Hall, in a historically African-American area of Downtown Jacksonville. I hope that audiences, artists and citizens will happen upon the performance, the lithographs which trace the performance and a possible “play list” installation in the abandoned Hall of the original singers on tour in Jacksonville, appreciating the rich history of a city that’s coming to life again, thanks to Aaron, Stevie, their organization and all of these rich local partnerships.”

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The most recent JDT performance was held in May, a wildly joyous event revisiting some of the 2018 performances and showcasing new works. Among the more memorable was The Things They Carried, choreographed by Kristen Sullivan in collaboration with the performer Amalia Rivera. She “wore” a skirt that doubled as a cage. Rivera moved “against” the paper restraints, finally breaking free. But much of the power in the performance was the dancer’s extended stillness: immobile for minutes at a time. As an image, it was compelling and evocative—as a foil to the dance, it was sharp and smart.

Contemporary dance can feel intimidating but, really, it’s about looking and feeling. When asked about the place dance occupies as an art form, McCaughan replies, “Dance is an important and historic art form in our country. Modern dance, in particular. It’s associated with the same ideas and energies connected to the American spirit and to American innovation. It’s a rebellion, an act of freedom, a challenge to the ways of the past, and a vision of new ways forward. Modern dance is diverse, dynamic, communal and inherently collaborative. We need to make sure we’re sustaining a diversity of arts here in Jacksonville—including professional modern dance, and we need to ensure those endeavoring to do such a crazy thing are valued."

JDT+NEDT
8 p.m. Sept. 8, Munnerlyn Center for Worship & Fine Arts, Episcopal School of Jacksonville, $12-$25, jacksonvilledantheatre.org

Did I Remember, 7 p.m. Sept. 26, WJCT Studios, Northbank, $20-$40, jacksonvilledantheatre.org

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