When someone falls in love with dance, it’s often a lifetime experience. It’s been that way for Jefferson James, founder, artistic director and CEO of Contemporary Dance Theater (CDT), today Cincinnati’s premiere presenter of a diversity of contemporary dance regularly appearing at downtown’s Aronoff Center.
Over the years, thanks to James, CDT has evolved from a now-defunct shoestring performing company (from which dancers like Peggy Lyman, who blossomed into a Graham soloist, graduated) into a lauded nonprofit based in College Hill’s elegant and spacious Old Town Hall. The space functions as a performance venue for dancers, actors and musicians, in addition to hosting dance classes (from ballet to Hip Hop), workshops and rehearsals.
Saturday, friends and supporters of CDT will celebrate CDT’s 40th season with a FORTY40 Gala at the historic Emery Theatre in Over-the-Rhine. Dedicated supporter and board member Elizabeth Collins, who designed the event, says, “CDT is beautiful. It presents and produces dance and performing arts that are diverse and socially relevant. There’s something for everyone.”
The fundraiser offers guests food, beverages, dancing and mixing and mingling on the Emery’s stage to global Jazz-Pop fusion from pianist Billy Larkin. Of course, there’s a requisite City Proclamation, silent auction and retrospective displays of photos, programs and costumes, plus video presentations looking back on CDT’s rich history.
It’s hard to overestimate James’ influence on Cincinnati modern dance, especially as a presenter. Her passion and vision have allowed local audiences to see more than 200 dance performances, including those from crossover headliners Pilobolus, Parsons Dance Company, and Bill T
But there have been a host of other visitors and styles, probably unfamiliar to the general public, but luminaries nevertheless in the modern dance world — artists in recent years like PHILADANCO, Koresh Dance Company, David Dorfman Dance, ZviDance, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, im’ij-r/Amy Seiwert, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Rennie Harris/Pure Movement, Danny Buraczeski’s JAZZDANCE — too many to list.
“I have long admired the caliber of companies that Contemporary Dance Theater brings to our community,” says Cincinnati Ballet’s Artistic Director and CEO Victoria Morgan. “Classical technique is near and dear to my heart, but I am enthralled by the depth of human expression through contemporary work. It connects to the heart and soul, it astounds us with what is physically and humanly possible.”
“I announced early on I was gonna be a dancer,” remembers James, who grew up in Alexandria, Va. “I started classes because my parents, who were writers and actors, knew Evelyn Davis, who taught in Washington, D.C. I lived on the bus for a number of years. I took an hour and a half modern class from her, and then took ballet at the Washington School of the Ballet.”
“I was never completely comfortable in ballet class. When I was 7 or 8, they wanted me to do a turn. I was used to dancing barefoot, and couldn’t balance in my shoes, so I took them off. I was kicked out of class!” she remembers. “But, of course I went back.”
Much later, James met her husband, Martin James while she was a dance student at Juilliard in Manhattan, and followed him to Cincinnati when he was hired by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Of her subsequent teaching and hatching the idea of a modern dance company, she now says, “I did it very selfishly, because I wanted to have dance in my life, and so I had to help make some.”
“At first, we had guest artists and we sort of invited them to stay and perform with us,” she says. “That was the beginning of presenting.”
James cites what she thinks of as stylistic cycles — for instance, between narrative versus more abstract works and between music-driven and music-independent choreography.
“In modern dance, we’ve always had this variety of choreographic visions and intentions overlapping each other,” she says. “The form and technology especially have certainly evolved, but I’m not sure there is continuous change in one direction.
“Modern dance is a fluid art form,” she adds. “But it’s ours in the studio. It’s time sensitive. It requires a lot of time to develop a piece. Not just in the creating of it but in the learning of it. So that part hasn’t changed at all. … It still takes a long time to make, teach, perform.”
“The dance you see tomorrow won’t be the dance you see the next day. The dance is ephemeral. The best way to see it is live.”
Contemporary Dance Theater’s FORTY40 GALA takes place Saturday at The Emery Theatre. Tickets are available at cdt-dance.org.