Ann Dunn had to move. It was an early weekday morning at a local diner, and the artistic director of Asheville Ballet had gotten up from her meal to dance. It would be understandable to mistake Dunn, bespectacled and well-dressed, for a mild-mannered academic. And while she does teach medieval humanities at UNC Asheville, Dunn focuses the majority of her time on the teaching and creation of art, specifically dance. She blends the two worlds well, though — for example, when her articulate description of an upcoming piece seamlessly extends into a graceful demonstration. For her, a tableside grand battement is just another way of explaining an idea.
On Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23 and 24, Asheville Ballet will stage its annual outdoor performance, Fall into Dance: An Artistic Harvest 2, at Roger McGuire Green. The program will include a range of dance styles, from ballet to contemporary, and live music provided by renowned percussionist Jeff Sipe of Aquarium Rescue Unit and other projects. The two performances are free and entirely funded by the Asheville Ballet Company: “The free thing is part of my idea that art is not an elite activity at all,” Dunn says.
The dance instructor does have exceptional training, though. She had a career first in The Big Apple, dancing at the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine (one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century and considered the father of American ballet style). Dunn also studied with Martha Graham, a major figure in American modern dance, and Merce Cunningham — a frequent collaborator of John Cage (both taught at Black Mountain College) and an all-around avant-garde titan.
After a stint as principal at the Hartford Ballet and founding a company in Indiana, Dunn settled in Asheville. She’s taught dance here for 36 years, starting in Montford with four students in her garage. From these humble beginnings, Dunn and her dancers have built Asheville Ballet into a solid establishment. There’s a core of eight to 10 adults in the company, who are paid for performances. These dancers also help with Dunn’s academy, which offers instruction and provides scholarships for students to study in New York and elsewhere.
The fall program features work from eight of these core members, including two pieces from Dunn. Her piece, “Walking the Streets,” was inspired by “the enormous pleasure — the existential pleasure, I would say — of walking in an urban environment.” It features soloist Megan Jones Medford and an ensemble of 17 dancers. In the performance, Medford embodies a New York City flâneuse — someone who gets to a know a city by wandering its streets, in one definition. The ensemble represents the crush of the city — friends, strangers, potential lovers — encountering Medford in crowds, trios and duets.
Sipe is providing the live soundtrack for Dunn’s “Walking the Streets” piece, but hadn’t yet seen the dance at press time. Dunn prefers to choreograph without music, then show the piece to the musicians to elicit feedback and more construction. It’s the artistic concept of spontaneous inspiration, which Dunn learned while studying with Cunningham.
Creating with such a large cast, and the potential personality conflicts inherent in a group of artists, presents challenges. “I have one rule,” Dunn says, pausing for dramatic effect. “You have to be a nice person if you want to stay here. There’s a sense of community, a sense of collaboration. When somebody does something amazing, everybody bursts into applause. That’s the studio environment.”
Speaking of environment, “I have a secret agenda for doing this performance outside,” Dunn says. “It’s to increase the audience for what’s often misinterpreted as an elite art form.” While some potential viewers may feel intimidated by a formal theater, Dunn hopes they will feel more comfortable bringing a lawn chair and blanket downtown and allowing themselves to be moved by the works.
She offers this thought: “There’s a wonderful line in a medieval Chinese poem that says, ‘Why must we be old friends to understand each other?’”
WHAT: Asheville Ballet presents Fall Into Dance: An Artistic Harvest 2
WHERE: Lamar Bascom stage at Roger McGuire Park. In case of inclement weather, the event will be moved indoors. See website for details: ashevilleballet.com
WHEN: Friday and Saturday, Sept. 23 and 24, 7:30 p.m. Free