ACDT marks 40 years of dance in Asheville

MAKING MOVES: Among ACDT's many experiments and innovations over the years — such as large foam pieces in the costuming, introduced by Giles Collard — was the inclusion of artists of different ages. “Sometimes we’d use people who weren’t trained dancers,” remembers Susan Collard. “That was totally unheard of … but it was OK to incorporate pedestrians.” Photo from a 2009 production of "Travelogue: Stories of Our Migration" by Toby Maurer

Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre is, in many ways, the product of its namesake locale. But travel to different cities and countries also informed the dance company’s vision and evolution.

“We were never meeting anybody who was doing anything like us,” says ACDT co-director Giles Collard. “Then we’d take it to another country, and the people would love it. … They’d ask us to come back.”

“But we also realized we were not so unique. It was old stuff. … Dancing on the street in Cuba: What an experience that was,” says Susan Collard, the company’s co-director and founder. “It changed my whole attitude about art. Our life is art.” The couple met through ACDT and eventually married — one of many connections and stories that make up the company’s four-decade history.

The celebratory production, 40 years of Dance Theatre: A Retrospective (Looking back; Looking ahead), takes place at Diana Wortham Theatre on Friday and Saturday, June 7 and 8.

If you build it

“What happens when five young women come together to find a missing component in their dance community?” asks the show description on the Diana Wortham Theatre website. “They create their own, they create what is missing with passion, experimentation and hard work.

“Was it a struggle? Yes. Did they give up? No. Was it successful? Yes.”

“Asheville has always been accepting of what we do and supportive of what we do,” says Susan. “And we can afford what we have because it’s in Asheville.” The city, she adds — from sponsors to showgoers — has been generous.

Susan moved to Asheville from Pittsburgh with plans to be part of the dance scene but found only ballet, jazz and tap — no modern dance. It was her position as a kindergarten teacher at the local Jewish Community Center in the 1970s that led to an opportunity. She was asked to lead after-school dance classes for students. “And that was the beginning of a situation where I had a space where I could teach,” she says. “I started to put out feelers … and by word-of-mouth, modern dancers in the community began to show up.” Julie Gillum, Charlotte Adams, Leigh Hollowell and Resi Dolbee joined Susan to create a company.

Gillum, the founder of Legacy Butoh, still lives in Asheville and will perform her piece “Butap” as part of the 40th-anniversary show. Adams, who recently retired from the University of Iowa, will return for the production. Other pieces, which will be excerpted for the program, include “Birds of War,” “The Loves of Tina Modotti,” and “Zelda and Scott Dances.”

Convenience was part of the consideration in choosing what dances to revisit: “Looking for Frida” is easy to resurrect, “because we’ve performed it over the years many times,” says Susan.

“Death by Plastica,” she says, “is very current, and people seem to like it.” Another piece, “The Decent Women of Calle 58,” is important because “it’s about humanity and caring,” Susan notes.

Giles points out that Sharon Cooper is the only dancer still with the company who performed that show, about the struggles and courage of Mexican women working as prostitutes in the Yucatán, “who actually met the sex-servers. [We] had a party with them, hanging out, eating chicken and drinking beer.” The dance troupe staged the piece in a Mayan village.

Take the show on the road

It was Giles (who joined the company in 1986, initially as a set designer and painter) who first suggested that ACDT travel internationally. The group had performed around the U.S., but Giles reached out to the elementary and middle schools he’d attended in France, as well as the local ballet school, proposing a residency by an American dance company. “We became really good friends and created an [exchange] where we could send dancers and perform,” he says.

“Working in different cultures and seeing their approach to dance was an eye-opening thing to me because it taught me to use emotions differently in movement,” says Susan. “Everything changed then. It wasn’t just good technique — it was more than good technique.”

ACDT went on to mount performances in Cuba, Colombia, Canada and Mexico under its White Dog ProjectX arm.

Early in the dance company’s history, lessons, rehearsals, shows and parties were held in the ballroom at The Manor Inn when that building was still a retirement community. ACDT also rented space in the Grove House complex before acquiring, in 1993, its Commerce Street home (and The Bebe Theater, next door, in 2000). The bylaws used for applying for nonprofit status were borrowed from Montford Park Players. In true shoestring fashion, most performances were offered free of charge. The dance organization was built on “no money, only a vision of dancing modern dance and performing it,” Susan says. “That’s how it happened.”

For a time, ACDT used the theater at Asheville School’s Walker Arts Center and staged the first performance at the Diana Wortham Theatre. “It’s so interesting what’s changed over the years in terms of what you can and can’t do in theaters,” says Susan. “At that time it was like, ‘Do what you want.’ There was no one to check on you.”

Today, ACDT is going strong with a current roster of nine dancers. That lineup has changed over the years as performers come and go. The company has also collaborated with various local artists over the years, including singer-songwriter Tyler Ramsey, poet Thomas Rain Crowe, storyteller Becky Stone and numerous drummers. Most recently, Mexican dancer Tatiana Zugazagoit­ia was in residency for a month, teaching workshops and performing.

Much of this history will be touched upon in the 40th-anniversary production; other parts of the ACDT story will be revisited in a video montage edited and compiled by Peter Brezny. “It almost made me cry to see some of these amazing dancers,” Susan says of that vintage footage. “They were dancing so beautifully.”

WHAT: ACDT 40 Years of Dance: A Retrospective, acdt.org
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, June 7 and 8, 7:30 p.m. $20-$29

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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