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Creating Work For Johnson County's New Dance Partners Requires A Sense Of Humor

Mike Strong
Members of the Owen/Cox Dance Group during the 2017 New Dance Partners performance at Johnson County Community College.

Partnering, in dance as in life, requires trust, collaboration and strength. Jokes are important, too.

“I’ve learned over the years that you have to leave room for who the dancers are, what the dynamic within that company is, the mistakes that are made, the jokes that are made,” says Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, one of four choreographers collaborating with four dance companies in the annual Kansas City ritual known as New Dance Partners.

“I just let myself surprise with what I will see, observing, observing, observing,” Lopez Ochoa says, reaching out and snapping as though snatching something from the air.

Credit Titus Tiel Groenestege
Amsterdam-based choreographer Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa created a piece with the Kansas City Ballet for New Dance Partners' 2018 performance.

And in some ways, creating something out of thin air is what New Dance Partners accomplishes each September, when all of those choreographers and companies come together at Johnson County Community College’s Carlsen Center. Now in its fifth year, the project pairs choreographers with companies to create new works, build up local repertoire and connect Kansas City artists with national- and international-level creative minds.

The dance companies began work right around Labor Day, creating the pieces within three weeks. That schedule makes for an intense creative process, and results in an exceptional evening of dance produced by Johnson County Community College (which is most often a presenting rather than producing organization).

This year, Kansas City Ballet, Owen/Cox Dance Group, Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company and Störling Dance Theater collaborates with choreographers Lopez Ochoa, Darrell Grand Moultrie, Christian Denice, and Lauri Stallings, respectively.

"We talk with the dance companies and let them tell us what they'd like to accomplish artistically, and then try to find a choreographer that fits that vision for the company,” says Emily Behrmann, general manager of the Carlsen Center.

Michael Uthoff, New Dance Partners’ artistic advisor, helps identify choreographers and connect them with the companies. Uthoff, former executive and artistic director for Dance St. Louis, created Spring to Dance Festival and New Dance Horizons, from which New Dance Partners models its program.

Credit Christian Denice
Working with Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company, Chicago-based choreographer explores the concept of belief for this year's New Dance Partners.

Sometimes Utoff will suggest a choreographer for a company; sometimes he and the company compare wish lists and see a match.

“Some of these choreographers who come in and have a great experience and they say, ‘You know who I know who would be great for this?’” Behrmann notes. Dance is a community of interlocking circles, and with every season the program creates ever-widening ripples in the national scene.

Because the choreographers haven’t worked with their dancers before, there is a steep and exhilarating orientation to the company. Even with advanced planning, until they are in the studio with their dances, no one can say how a piece will develop.

For instance, Amsterdam-based Lopez Ochao, who is working with the Kansas City Ballet, knew she would use inspiration from the Dutch Golden Age of painting, somehow building tableaux set against a backdrop of Baroque-era compositions. But she didn’t know exactly how that would take shape.

“I thought, 'What would that be, the composition, if I was the painter? What is the story, what is the drama?'” she says.

That’s where all of that observing – and a sense of humor – comes in.

“The dancers are very well trained and they’ll do what you tell them, but it's so much nicer when it’s a collaboration,” Lopez Ochoa says. “There’s a different vibration in the studio when they actually feel that you are making the steps on the spot.”

Her piece, “Tulips & Lobster,” aims to capture the moments before and after the painted scene, similarly to the way a live photo works in a smart phone. Lighting designer Burke Brown emulates the dramatic light and shadow of the Dutch style.

The piece has turned out quirkier than she anticipated.

“By now,” she laughs, “they know if they make a joke it might end up in the piece.”

Credit Darrell Moultrie
New York choreographer Darrell Moultrie is paired with the Owen/Cox Dance group for this year's New Dance Partners.

New York City-based Moultrie, who is working with Owen/Cox, also taps into the energy of creation in developing his “Vibes to be Caught.”

He’s the only choreographer who has previously worked in Kansas City, having choreographed “Evita” at the Kansas City Rep. This piece is different, tapping into the dancers’ ballet and modern technique.

“This piece is very intimate, with only six dancers, so you get to dive into each dancer and give them lots of coaching and find ways to push their movement and push how they think,” he says. “For my process it’s more about how I change them moving forward, and how to get them to give more of who they are as artists and movers and dancers.”

His piece expresses the different auras in the music of jazz greats like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis.

“There’s an energy around each one,” he says.

Some of the works come from a personal narrative. Chicago-based Denice says his piece explores “belief, and what happens when we begin to deconstruct these beliefs and start to question their value, validity, and authenticity in our own personal lives.”

Coming from a Catholic-school background, Denice’s piece mixes Gregorian chant and electronic music while the dancers with Wylliams/Henry unravel what holds together these systems of belief.

Credit Jeoff Davis
Paired with Störling Dance for this year's New Dance Partners, Lauri Stallings is an Atlanta-based choreographer, concept artist and activist.

Stallings, who is also concept artist and activist and makes most of her work out of The Goat Farm Arts Center in Atlanta, pairs with Störling Dance, which joined New Dance Partners last year. Störling Dance is the only one of these companies based, like Johnson County Community college, in Kansas.

"This was a way to build on that relationship between our institutions,” Behrmann explains.

And Störling’s participation is thanks, in part, to a grant from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.

It’s the partnership between private and public funding that makes New Dance Partners possible, says Behrmann, and lets the program and the artists evolve.

New Dance Partners’ growth mindset pushes the artists and its audience towards new challenges, a chance to reflect, to get caught up, and, yes, to laugh.

New Dance Partners, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 21-22 8 p.m. in Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College's Carlsen Center, 12345 College Boulevard, Overland Park, Kansas 66210; 913-469-8500.

KCUR contributor Libby Hanssen writes the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich. Follow her on Twitter, @libbyhanssen.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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