Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance takes dance into the light

The Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance takes dance into the light.
The Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance takes dance into the light.

Credit: The Dayton Dance Initiative

Credit: The Dayton Dance Initiative

When the Dayton Dance Initiative’s second annual live performance was canceled in May, there was an obvious sense of disappointment. The professional dancers who planned and were set to perform their own original production had put in countless hours to create it all, from the choreography and music, to costumes and ticketing.

There was no way this dedicated group of dancers was going to throw in the towel that easily. Instead of turning the cancellation into defeat, the dancer-operated project decided to take the performance online and push their creativity even further.

Rather than film or live stream a static performance at the PNC Arts Annex, where the in-person show was to take place, the dance group has created an hour-long “dance movie” showcasing the individual dance pieces in unique and unexpected places.

The thinking is if you can’t have an audience, you might as well go places an audience can’t go, like dancing on rooftops and outside in the rain. The challenges of an online-only performance blossomed into opportunity in more ways than one.

The community can watch the Moving Strong performance for free beginning Saturday, Aug. 8, at 8 p.m. on the Dayton Dance Initiative’s YouTube page for up to 72 hours until Tuesday at 3 p.m. After that, the performance will be archived at www.daytondanceinitiative.com.

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Dayton Dance Initiative dancers get creative during the COVID-19 pandemic. CONTRIBUTED
Dayton Dance Initiative dancers get creative during the COVID-19 pandemic. CONTRIBUTED

The birth of a new dance company

The coronavirus pandemic has altered everyone’s lives in various ways, performing artists included. Their work has been canceled until it is determined how to safely have performances in theaters again, and professional dancers tend to find this prolonged limbo particularly stressful.

Unlike their peers in the philharmonic and opera, there is a short window on their careers. Like professional athletes, these dancers have dedicated their childhood through college years to train in order to, at best, have a handful of years in the spotlight.

So when professional dancers from the Dayton Ballet and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) found their seasons cut short this spring, many turned to their summer side project, the Dayton Dance Initiative, for a creative outlet and a reason to keep training.

The Dayton Dance Initiative (DDI) was founded in 2019 by former Dayton Ballet dancer Jocelyn Green, who had been longing to collaborate with her contemporary counterparts in DCDC.

Paul Gilliam as Tom Buchanan and Jocelyn Green as Myrtle Wilson in “The Great Gatsby.” CONTRIBUTED
Paul Gilliam as Tom Buchanan and Jocelyn Green as Myrtle Wilson in “The Great Gatsby.” CONTRIBUTED

Since these professional dancers are contracted with their respective companies on a seasonal basis, with summers off, DDI was formed to provide an additional performance for the dancers during their off-season. It also provides something they don’t often get within their parent companies: individual creative expression.

Traditionally, Dayton Ballet and DCDC, along with the majority of dance companies, perform full length and repertory pieces by famous choreographers like Septime Webre, or by the artistic directors of the companies themselves. Rarely do the dancers themselves have the opportunity to publicly perform their own original work.

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Green wanted to give her peers a platform to express their choreographic voices, allowing the dancers to stretch themselves physically, mentally and artistically. She decided to apply for, and was granted, a Montgomery County Artist Opportunity Grant, which served as the launchpad for the DDI’s formation last year.

Green created the company during the 2018-2019 performance season, with the first and only performances occurring on May 18, 2019, at the new, black-box-style space inside the PNC Arts Annex. The company included fellow Dayton Ballet dancers, along with DCDC dancers and ballroom experts from Arthur Murray Dance Center.

The Dayton Dance Initiative will showcase a special virtual presentation during Art in the City on Aug. 8, then will remain available after the event. CONTRIBUTED
The Dayton Dance Initiative will showcase a special virtual presentation during Art in the City on Aug. 8, then will remain available after the event. CONTRIBUTED

Along with the creative opportunity, the entire ensemble earned invaluable experience putting together and funding the production. They also learned tricks on how to market an event on a shoestring budget. The entire experience gave the dancers a taste of what their career might look like after they retire from performing.

The dancers succeeded across the board, as the sell-out crowds hailed it a truly outstanding performance. Accolades poured in after the show, in person and on social media.

“Dancing their own choreography, they lit up the floor with their unique perspectives,” Dan Kennedy, President of the Dayton Ballet Barre, wrote. “This show revealed another creative aspect from the dancers that we already love to watch. The show had a fun energy with pieces ranging from intense to humorous. I’m definitely going to see their next performance!”

I also attended their debut performance and noticed fellow audience members gasping in delight, drying a tear or two, and ripping into applause at the curtain call, genuinely wanting an encore.

The Dayton Dance Initiative’s debut performance wowed audiences. (Contributed photo by Briana Paige)
The Dayton Dance Initiative’s debut performance wowed audiences. (Contributed photo by Briana Paige)

Credit: Briana Paige

Credit: Briana Paige

Dance innovation continues

It may not be celebrated as widely, but Dayton’s history of artistic innovation is as impressive as its list of inventions. While we do hear about the history of the early funk and alternative music scenes that emerged from the Gem City, our pioneers in the dance world are lesser-known.

The Dayton Ballet is the second-oldest ballet company in the United States and is known internationally as “The Company of Premieres,” and for promoting ballets by female choreographers.

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The path to founding the company started when Josephine Schwarz and her sister Hermene opened The Schwarz School of Dance in 1927. “Miss Jo” later studied at the School of American Ballet, but was forced to return home to Dayton after receiving an injury while performing in New York.

In May 1937, the sisters gathered the school’s finest dancers, named the troupe “The Experimental Group for Young Dancers,” and staged a performance at the Dayton Art Institute. That was the first performance of what is now called the Dayton Ballet.

Josephine and Hermene Schwarz, founders of the Dayton Ballet, in an undated photograph. The sisters began teaching students in their Dayton home.  DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE
Josephine and Hermene Schwarz, founders of the Dayton Ballet, in an undated photograph. The sisters began teaching students in their Dayton home. DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Two decades later, the sisters would help make history again. An 8-year-old Black girl, Jeraldyne Blunden, wanted to attend ballet classes. Due to segregation, the sisters taught Blunden privately.

Through the Schwarz sisters, Jeraldyn attended the American Dance Festival in Connecticut, where she studied with Martha Graham, José Limón, George Balanchine and James Truitte.

At 19, Blunden assumed leadership of the dance school at the Linden Center, also founded by the Schwarz sisters. A superb teacher, she sent her dance students to study at such notable centers as Dance Theatre of Harlem, the American Dance Festival, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center.

In 1968, she established Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which became the first modern dance company in Ohio, and one of the largest companies of its kind between Chicago and New York City.

Jeraldyne Blunden founded the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in 1968. DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVES
Jeraldyne Blunden founded the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in 1968. DAYTON DAILY NEWS ARCHIVES

Credit: Dayton Daily News Archive

Credit: Dayton Daily News Archive

Maybe it’s in the water? Whatever the explanation, it’s interesting and inspiring to know that spirit of artistic innovation lives on in the current dancers of Dayton.

Green, who accepted a contract with Wonderbound, a contemporary ballet company in Denver, for the 2019-2020 performance season, passed the torch to her fellow Dayton Ballet veteran, Nathaly Prieto. The Cuban native has found a second home in Dayton after dancing with the Dayton Ballet for eight seasons.

Prieto has led the effort to put together DDI’s follow-up performance. She has received support from fellow Dayton Ballet dancers Claire Mitchell and Margot Aknin, who helped with organizing, fundraising and marketing efforts.

The trio thought they could simply follow Green’s playbook from last year, but the pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. Once the theater performance was canceled, they had to retool their execution plans, opting for a pre-recorded virtual performance.

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They did consider setting up a video camera inside the PNC’s black box theater and streaming it live. Yet, it didn’t feel like it would satisfy DDI’s fans. Would the energy translate across screen? They had a nagging feeling it needed to be something more.

They decided to take dance out of the dark theater space it has grown accustomed to, and into the light. Prieto challenged the choreographers to imagine new venues for their performances and essentially become directors of their own videos.

“Each choreographer has the opportunity to make their own little mini dance film,” Aknin explained. “Now the choreographers come up with not only steps, but also the camera angles and editing too. It’s become an entirely different thing.”

Nathaly Prieto takes Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance into the light
Nathaly Prieto takes Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance into the light

Credit: Dayton Dance Initiative

Credit: Dayton Dance Initiative

Of course, the dancers had to consider modifications to rehearsals and filming in order to keep the dancers as safe as possible. Dancers wore masks during rehearsals, some of whom also got COVID-19 tests to perform more intimate pieces.

“One of the things that a lot of our audience members are asking themselves is, ‘Why are they not able to live stream from the Annex?‘” Prieto says. “We were not able to keep all our dancers backstage together, even if we didn’t have an audience. There are 21 of us. There was no way for us to keep our distance in that tight space.”

“So for that reason, we also decided that it was better, for the safety of all the artists, to have every choreographer meet with their individual small group of dancers, which is comprised of just one or two people in most cases,” she continues.

Paul Gilliam works on his piece for the Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance. CONTRIBUTED
Paul Gilliam works on his piece for the Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: Dayton Dance Initiative

Credit: Dayton Dance Initiative

One of the aspects of the performance I enjoyed so much last year was the diversity of dance styles. There were soul-stirring contemporary duets, edgy yet traditionally inspired pieces on pointe, with a high energy ballroom blockbuster that electrified the audience. The concept for this year’s production follows suit.

“All the pieces are very drastically different,” Prieto confirms. “You will be seeing solos filmed outdoors, duets performed indoors, and three group pieces set in different locations around downtown. I can also tell you that there are a lot of costume changes.”

Each piece has been filmed separately over the last two weeks, and are being strung together like a string of pearls. The result is Dayton’s newest stamp in dance innovation history. As institutions across the nation are scrambling to get online, this scrappy new ensemble has taken the lead.

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“We thought outside of the box,” Mitchell agrees. “Maybe we can be an example to other dance companies that need to go virtual, too. This is how we can enjoy dance from the comfort of our own living room. And maybe more people will be able to experience it now, too.”

How to watch

To watch the Moving Strong performance, tune in at DDI’s YouTube page on Saturday, Aug. 8, at 8 p.m. The free performance will be available for 72 hours. After that, the performance will be archived on their website: www.daytondanceinitiative.com.

The Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance takes place in various locations downtown, including The Brightside at 905 E. 3rd St., shown here. PHOTO BY LIBBY BALLENGEE
The Dayton Dance Initiative’s free virtual performance takes place in various locations downtown, including The Brightside at 905 E. 3rd St., shown here. PHOTO BY LIBBY BALLENGEE

Credit: Libby Ballengee

Credit: Libby Ballengee