While the participating students and teachers enjoy the professional development, the public probably gets the greatest benefit — the festival includes three public performances by a featured guest company, plus a “Birmingham Dance Showcase and an “Alabama Dance Showcase,” highlighting the talents of local dancers.
The Jan. 14-17 event includes almost every imaginable style: The ADF weekend will feature hip-hop dance, West Coast swing, salsa and merengue, African tribal dance, American Tribal belly dance, even creative movement for children ages 3-5. The featured guest company is Battleworks Dance Company, founded in 2001 by choreographer and dancer Robert Battle. Born in Miami, Fla., Battle is graduate of the New World School of Arts and the Julliard School. He joined the New York-based contemporary dance ensemble Parsons Dance Company in 1994; four years later, Parsons Dance began performing his choreographed works.
Battle founded Battleworks Dance Company in 2001 as a platform for his original choreography and as a home company for professional dancers to work and grow. The eight-dancer ensemble has now spent the better part of a decade performing provocative contemporary dance—sequences of movement almost as challenging for audiences to witness as they are for the dancers to execute. The diverse soundtrack to which the company's repertoire is set—including Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, J.S. Bach, Arvo Part, Donna Summer—is a strong indication of Battle's penchant for exploration. Numerous national dance companies, including the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre and PARADIGM, have commissioned Robert Battle to create original works and re-stagings of pieces from the Battleworks repertory. The aesthetic seems broad, but Battle demands that dancers dig deep.
Artists going pro
Surprisingly, a significant part of the Alabama Dance Festival's weekend lineup isn't just for dancers: It's for artists of all disciplines — anybody who needs to learn to think on his or her feet. The Alabama Dance Festival started in Montgomery but has been held in Birmingham since 2003. Every year has seen registration numbers increase and the programming diversify to include more styles of dance and more levels of training — dance education workshops and pre-professional classes were added to master classes and workshops for dance students. New to the festival in 2008 were professional development workshops for arts educators and working artists. These workshops are offered again this year, and festival organizers hope to reach painters, sculptors, writers, musicians and other artists in addition to dancers.
"We started dance education workshops four or five years ago and then expanded a few years ago, to really find a way to reach out to the entire arts community," says Rosemary Johnson, executive director of the Alabama Dance Council. "If you’re involved professionally in the arts in Alabama, there’s really not a lot of professional development opportunity without going out of state. If you’re a practicing artist or you’re working in a small arts organization, you need these opportunities and need access to them."
Choreographer Celeste Miller led the first professional development workshops at the 2008 Alabama Dance Festival and returns as a faculty member this year. Among the workshops she will teach are "Curriculum in Motion: Dance and Movement as a Classroom Tool for Academic Learning" and " Artists in the Schools: Practicing your Art Form & Connecting to Curriculum." Miller developed "Curriculum in Motion" at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Company in Massachusetts and has presented the program to dozens of arts organizations nationwide.
Other noteworthy workshops on the schedule include "Engaging Audiences and Growing Your Web Presence," presented by Jaki Levy of Arrow Root Media; "Using Second Life to Engage Audiences" and "Navigating and Utilizing Social Media for Audience Development." The latter two programs will be presented by multimedia specialist Michael Moss and Leatrice Ellzy, the director of artistic programming and new technology for the Atlanta-based National Black Arts Festival.
Johnson emphasizes that you don't have to be a dancer to participate in — or benefit from — these workshops. "The focus is on education and how on to use the arts to build community," she says. "We're just trying to get the word out — and we've made it cheap," she laughs. "We have a 'starving artist package' in order to make it accessible to more people."
A chance to dance
Of course, making dance accessible to more people 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. 16: up to two classes in the morning and two in the afternoon, book-ending a lunch and performance showcase featuring 10 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:
– Hip-hop dance taught by Winston Strickland of M.A.D. (Music and Dance) Skillz Dance Co.;
– Salsa and merengue taught by Jacques LatinSoul productions;
– Fitness dance taught by Carla Higginbotham of Dance Trance of Birmingham;
– African dance taught by Solomon Sholanke of Osumare African Drum & Dance Ensemble;
– Contemporary and traditional praise dance classes taught by Lavondia Square Bryant of Natifah Dance Company;
– American-style tribal belly dance taught by Megha Gavin of Devyani Dance Company;
– Ballet-modern fusion taught by Leslie Cooper;
– West Coast swing taught by Chris and Emily Bailey of Bailey Dance; and
– Stepping 101 taught by Nefertari Rigsby of the Omicron Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
All classes will take place in the north meeting rooms at the BJCC. Registration onsite begins at 9 a.m., but advance registration online saves a place in class. In 2008, more than 200 people showed up — even after an ice storm had hit the city the night before.
"This is our community outreach," Johnson says. "It's a way for us to bring dance to as many people as we can."
The Alabama Dance Festival takes place Jan. 14-17 at various venues, including the Alys Stephens Center, Birmingham-Southern College, the BJCC and Children’s Dance Foundation.
The festival features showcase performances by 31 dance companies from around the state plus auditions and master classes for dancers and professional development workshops for artists in every discipline. Battleworks Dance Company will give three performances at the Alys Stephens Center as the featured guest company for the festival. Show times are Jan. 15-16, 7:30 p.m., and Jan. 17, 2:30 p.m. Tickets cost $35-$75 for adults and $20 for students, and are available at (205) 975-2787 or www.alysstephens.org. “Dance Across Birmingham” is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 16, 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 merengue and salsa, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Pre-registration recommended. Call (205) 305-4257. www.alabamadancecouncil.org.