As Contemporary Dance Theater celebrates the close of its 41st anniversary season with the Area Choreographers Festival this weekend at the Aronoff, it also bids farewell to founder, artistic and executive director Jefferson James.
Perhaps it’s fitting, given her long-lasting support for Cincinnati modern dance in the form of CDT — which originally included a repertory company headed by James — that her final concert is the traditional season-ending presentation that for more than 20 years has put onstage approximately 125 modern dance works by some 30 choreographers with local or regional ties.
“I’m very proud of what we have been able to do,” James says. “The idea was to give choreographers who continue to do work, if they have an opportunity to perform/present it, this opportunity. I wanted them to be presented with the same production values as the higher profile guest artists we were bringing in.”
For James, the greatest strength of modern dance is the variety, the creativity and the intelligence visible in the work. To her, it’s the ability to communicate unusual or difficult concepts without using words that is so amazing.
And indeed, at her behest, the seven choreographers on the bill this weekend present a thoughtful variety of works, most clustered informally around ideas gleaned from “Chronicles,” a collection of life stories from residents of Llanfair Retirement Community in College Hill, an across-the-street neighbor of CDT’s home base, The College Hill Town Hall.
Judith Mikita, a longtime choreographer at the festival, admired the fortitude of the Llanfair residents who inspired her.
“When I asked them about challenges and trials in their lives, they would say, ‘Well, you just put one foot in front of the other,’” she says. “I admired this. It made me think how we wear our victories openly, but carry our sorrows privately.
“So, as I was creating ‘Too Many Sad Stories,’ I asked my dancers to find a challenge and give that a shape. I’ve also incorporated projected images that John Gibson, who teaches at Xavier University, found in the residents’ stories.”
Another Festival veteran, Ka-Ron Brown Lehman, formerly artistic director of the famed Los Angeles County High School for the Arts’ dance department, draws from the stories of Llanfair residents who found soul mates, fell in love, got married and lived their lives.
“I used associations with words I picked from their stories, like ‘train,’ ‘suitcases’ and ‘book,’ ” Brown Lehman says. She eventually came up with the poignant story of a man visited by the Angel of Death as he waits for the Death Train, who is granted one last dance with a lost love.
Also inspired by the struggles, shifts and changes in Llanfair residents were two festival newcomers, Dayton, Ohio’s Nikki Wetter, a graduate of Wright State University and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company 2, and Steven Evans, a graduate of Ohio University and a first year performer with Cincinnati’s MamLuft&Co. Dance.
Jeri Deckard Gatch, Leslie Dworkin and Diane Germaine, all experienced choreographers and dancers, are festival “repeats” that have chosen not to work specifically with the Llanfair “Chronicles” but whose work still draws strongly on human stories.
Gatch, also a popular teaching artist and arts advocate, premieres “The Year of Dreams.”
“My cast and I met for an entire year once a month, with the goal of creating one minute of dance from each meeting,” she says. “I came up with the idea of dreaming to make connections between them. I love sets and props, and in this dance we use beds.”
Dworkin, who’s performed in the works of such dance luminaries as Ralph Lemon and Maureen Fleming, performs her own “The Beast,” inspired by the Eastern European immigrant experience. “Since the piece is about survival, the idea of the beast is perhaps a metaphor for that which we try to deny — such as our cultural roots, or anything we need to resist, in order to survive.”
In Germaine’s 2008 “The Empty Room,” a solo dancer uses the language of gestures to create one person’s response to loss. Her dancer is first viewed as through a window, but the perspective changes so the viewer is in a room with her. Projections of paintings by Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe figure in the piece. Eventually, the dancer disappears. “It’s about a way of looking,” Germaine says, “not necessarily a statement of fact. Maybe she was never there — but you do feel that she’s gone. That’s for sure.”
Contemporary Dance Theater’s AREA
CHOREOGRAPHERS FESTIVAL takes place Friday, June 13 at 8:30 p.m. and Saturday, June 14 at 8:30 p.m. at the Aronoff
Center. More information here.