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Atlanta's dance scene steps up

A vibrant and singular local movement takes shape

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WORKING CLASS: gloATL hijacks the Lindbergh Center MARTA station. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • WORKING CLASS: gloATL hijacks the Lindbergh Center MARTA station.

Similarly, Rodriguez's Dance Truck hauls right over an old dynamic. Dance Truck is a simple, scrappy idea that turns Atlanta's trademark hassles — sprawl, a diffuse car-based culture, acres of parking lots and asphalt — into a setting for creation. Since 2009, founder and artistic director Rodriguez has presented mixed programs of Atlanta-based independent dancers and choreographers using the back of a flatbed truck as a stage platform.

"Dance tends to be an insular subculture," says Rodriguez. "But we were engaging a large, diverse group of people in the production of a contemporary dance performance. That's pretty rare."

Rodriguez is referring to Dance Truck's most recent production, PLOT, Rodriguez and Beckham's collaborative effort to make the choreographer's aforementioned sod-filled dream a reality. As the pair set about raising funds and support for their new project, unusual things began to happen. The pair discovered that people were as excited about their vision as they were. "So many people started jumping into the project with as much passion and enthusiasm as we had. It became even bigger because we realized all the possibilities," says Rodriguez, who was just awarded Emory University's Community Impact Award, which recognizes significant contributions in creativity and the arts in Atlanta.

The July show involved a small army of contributors: 20 crew members, dozens of visual artists, seven interns, four dancers and more than 100 volunteers. Cotton gin-turned-artist-colony the Goat Farm donated space. A local garden shop helped with promotion and fundraising. Home gardeners planted hundreds of seedlings in shoes used as planters, a central image of the show. Visual artists designed elaborate sets, including an industrial, oversize swing set, and a vintage truck collector lent his '76 Chevy Scout.

With so many people involved, buzz about the show spread quickly. PLOT's four-performance run — a long one by Atlanta dance standards — almost sold out. In fact, some performances were oversold. PLOT, in which the audience was led from setting to setting around the Goat Farm by the sod-filled truck, was unusual in many regards. But perhaps the most unusual thing about it was the audience: The show managed to attract a diverse group of nearly 400 viewers, a feat practically unheard of for a contemporary dance production by a new company in Atlanta.

There's a curious Catch-22 that's ended the careers of many aspiring Atlanta choreographers before they've even begun. In 2007, Angela Harris was trying to make the transition from dancer at the Georgia Ballet to choreographer when she discovered the conundrum: For choreographers to create work in a professional setting they need a solid résumé of past work, but new choreographers can't build a solid résumé without creating in a professional setting. It's a frustrating challenge even for the well-funded and connected, but for under-resourced talent, it's an absolutely dismal scenario.

Harris sought out others in Atlanta fighting a similar battle and discovered many like herself. So she organized a group of 10 choreographers that pooled resources and worked together with professional dancers and crew to create an original show at the 14th Street Playhouse. The primary goal was to build résumés, present work and leave with that precious commodity for aspiring choreographers: a professional dance reel.

In the process, Harris became enamored with creating the possibility for others to create.

Dubbed Dance Canvas, her new model would be a way to help bring to Atlanta the vibrant atmosphere she'd enjoyed as a dancer in New York. "I didn't want it to be about me and my work anymore," she says. "I wanted it to be about creating more dance options in Atlanta. Atlanta is really fertile ground for dance."

Dance Canvas provides choreographers with access to professional dancers, rehearsal space, contacts and development workshops. In only three seasons, Dance Canvas has positioned itself to be a crucial training ground for Atlanta's vast but under-resourced talent: 2 Kids and a Dream, Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance, the LIFT annual showcase of male choreographers, and City Dance Contemporary Ballet are some of the new organizations that trace roots and leadership back to Dance Canvas. Harris' efforts recently earned her Americans for the Arts' prestigious Emerging Arts Leader award. She is the only Atlantan ever to win it.

"We have so much talent here," says Harris. "We have a huge opportunity to make Atlanta a big dance hub on a national level."

Next: How Stallings inspired the Atlanta Ballet

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