Motivated by movement, three dancers from Maine will perform at regional event in Boston

One thing Aretha Aoki learned about herself during the pandemic: when it comes to performing, she needs a live audience.

“There is an energy there. We build it and make it together,” explained Aoki, a dance choreographer and professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. “And that’s very different from an imaginary audience. It feels specific to that moment and to the people in the room.

Aoki is one of three dancers from Maine, along with Scott McPheeters from Biddeford and Kristen Stake from Portland, who will participate in the New England Now Dance Platform next weekend at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston.

The event, spread over three nights starting Friday, will feature 18 separate performances featuring a variety of dance styles. This is part of the New England Foundation for Art’s Regional Dance Development Initiative, which was established in 2004 to provide professional development for dance artists in different parts of the country. The last time New England hosted the initiative was in 2007. The program includes many training and networking opportunities, the most significant of which is a 10-day dance lab with instructors, and culminates in live performance.

“It’s joyful for us,” said Indira Goodwine, director of the foundation’s dance program. “We’re really thrilled to be able to support these artists, but we’re also thrilled for the audience.”

RECONNECT

For many dancers like Aoki, the sense that the connection between performer and patron has been rare over the past two years. She said she was fortunate to recently be invited by a friend and fellow teacher to perform at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. That’s all.

“It’s like riding a bike, luckily,” she says. “But it was so good to connect with other dancers and with the audience.”

Few professions have been spared by the pandemic, but the extended break imposed on performing artists has led some to grapple with existential questions.

That’s true for McPheeters. In early 2020, he was living and dancing in Oakland, California when it all came to a halt. He has decided to return full-time to Biddeford, where he grew up and where he recently teamed up with two others to create an artist residency in a former farmhouse.

“Never in a million years would I have thought of coming back here,” he said. “But Biddeford, he changed and redeveloped in really interesting ways and a lot of that change came from the arts. So to come back and see so much vitality, it’s been inspiring.

Dancer Kristen Stake of Casco Bay Movers sees dancing as a method of healing, something sorely needed in the wake of the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Stake, a dancer and psychotherapist who founded The Living Room Dance Collective in South Portland in 2015, also faced a harsh reality when the pandemic hit.

“The whole ethos of The Living Room was (do it yourself), which to me meant bringing the community together,” she said. “It ended and I had to have a one-on-one with myself on ‘How do I want to spend my artistic energy?’ ”

The answer, she found, was to create her own work as a choreographer, something she had done little before. Unlike Aoki and McPheeters, who were among 12 artists to participate in the regional dance initiative, Stake is an organized artist. This means that she, along with five others, has been selected by the New England Foundation for Art – with input from the initiative’s dancers – to participate and fill the performance slots.

“It was perfect timing, really,” Stake said. She had already worked on something.

Each of the 18 dancers will prepare a 12-minute performance. Some will dance solo, others with partners or in a group. Dance is a small world, so the three Maine-based artists all know each other.

“In a dream space, we’d like to have more than 18 dancers that we could support, but the reality is that structure doesn’t exist,” Goodwine said. “But New England is overflowing with dance right now, and we’re always talking about ways to support that overflow.”

REIMAGINED ROOTS

Aoki, who hails from the Western Pacific region of Canada, came to Maine five years ago to take up a position as an assistant professor of dance at Bowdoin College. She also choreographs with her husband, Ryan MacDonald. They live in Topsham.

“I feel very lucky to have this position at Bowdoin, which comes with access to the studio,” she said. “It’s huge. It can be expensive to rent space, and there’s not a lot of it there.

The job also allows Aoki to make space for his own work.

Like others, she had applied to the Regional Dance Development Initiative before the pandemic, but it was closed for all of 2020. The initiative has several components, including a seven-day professional development opportunity last summer as part of the Bates Dance Festival, culminating in this weekend’s performances.

Thinking about the kind of dance she wanted to perform, Aoki said she thought about her own ancestry. She is Japanese on her father’s side and became interested in Kabuki, a stylized form of dance and theater originating in Japan.

Her dance will focus on Kabuki founder Izumo no Okuni, “reimagined as a sort of punk rock figure,” Aoki said. Kabuki, which loosely translates to weird or indecent, has always been “a bit rebellious.” For centuries, it was only practiced by men, even though its creator was a woman.

“I’m not trying to do actual Kabuki,” she said. “It’s really kind of a reinvention, trying to create a world inspired by what she offered.”

Aoki admitted that she was nervous about dancing in front of people again.

“What we do is so people-dependent,” she said. “Over the past two years, we have seen sites shut down or reinvent their offerings. Artists are resilient and resourceful, but nothing replaces a live audience.

AN INVITATION TO IMPROVISE

McPheeters grew up in Biddeford and went to school at Waynflete, a private school in Portland. As a child, he had a passing interest in dancing, but was more drawn to gymnastics.

It wasn’t until college, when he took a dance class to meet a requirement, that he finally got hooked. He changed course and made it his job.

For his performance at a regional dance event in Boston, Scott McPheeters will invite other artists to join him. Photo by Derek Davis/Team Photographer

After college, McPheeters spent more than a decade dancing professionally in Philadelphia.

In 2014, he and his partners Niki and Jorge Cousineau purchased an old farmhouse in his hometown and turned it into an artists’ space, Subcircle Residency. But he was not ready to return full time.

Instead, McPheeters enrolled in a graduate program in California. Her plan was to seek out dance opportunities in the San Francisco Bay Area when the pandemic hit.

“Everything was shut down, obviously, so I went back to Maine,” he said. “But I quickly realized that was where I needed to be.”

McPheeters said living in more diverse urban areas gave him the confidence he lacked growing up in Biddeford.

“Growing up queer, I never felt like I belonged here,” he said.

McPheeters’ dance show will be a little different from the others, he said. Over the past few weeks, he’s spent time talking to fellow attendees about life in New England and how it affects the way they think about dancing. He creates a sound score from the audio recordings of these conversations and then plans to invite the other 17 dancers on stage with him.

“It will be improvisation, but I wanted us all to share the space at the same time,” he said. “I know a lot of people who do solos or perform with dancers they know and have worked with – in other words, more specific choreography. I hope this is an invitation that does not ask too much.

HEALING MOVEMENTS

Stake, who has been dancing since first grade (not always professionally), is a psychotherapist by day. She believes in the power of dance as a source of healing.

In fact, the performance she’s choreographed for next weekend is called “You’re Gonna Be Healed.”

She will perform with another dancer, Hannah Wasielewski, who works as a mental health counsellor.

“It all started with an idea of ​​how we create community healing during COVID,” Stake said. “How can we come together during this traumatic time we are all going through? And what he has become is really a ceremony.

Stake has described his work as “a combination of movement, speech and theatre”. More performance art than traditional dance. A shock to people’s nervous systems, she hopes. The performance will feature many costume and character changes, or up to 12 minutes long.

Hannah Wasielewski, left, and Kristen Stake look at themselves in a mirror as they rehearse “You are going to be healed” at Casco Bay Movers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Hannah and I really want to continue working on this piece. We talked about working on it for the rest of our lives,” Stake said. “We hope to find a venue to do a full evening show at some point.”

Stake said Maine’s modern dance community is robust, which isn’t always apparent to the general public. This is one of the reasons why she founded the Living Room collective.

“I’ve always been passionate about recruiting people to discover the movement,” she says. “I had to organize myself to find others, but now I think I am able to reap the fruits of this work. There are real dancers living here who speak the language.

The biggest downside to the Portland area, Stake said, is the lack of dance space.

“There really aren’t a lot of medium-sized venues for dancing,” she said.

The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, where they will perform next weekend, welcomes 300 people. Stake admitted it will be a little daunting, but after two years without an audience, it will be welcome too.


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