Raising the Barre

BY Marimar McNaughton

The six original members of the Dance Cooperative found each other while what else dancing. “We were performing two or three times a year ” Suzanne Palmer recalls. She says that though their experiences were varied “We had a similar understanding of what we thought a modern dance company would look like.”

They formed the Dance Cooperative in 2001 and began training together. “To stay in shape for one thing professional dancers dance several hours a day ” she says squeezing in a few minutes to talk. Between working (she and her husband own Great Harvest Bread) mothering their 15-year-old daughter teaching two weekly classes at the Dance Cooperative and rehearsing two performance pieces while choreographing a new dance for herself Palmer is edging pretty close to that professional scale.

In 2003 Palmer and Nancy Podrasky Carson Anne Firmender Erika Meyerson Harper Piver and Leslie Riley Searcy took the leap invested $100 a month each to rent a space and landed on their feet at their first studio on Market Street. Their mission soon grew beyond their desire to stay in shape.

They identified a community-based need to nurture dance art at its highest level by leading classes offering rehearsal space and creating performance opportunities to encourage artistically culturally and economically under-served children and adults in the greater Wilmington area to dance. In 2006 they moved into their new space at 118 S. 17th St.

What the Dance Cooperative provides is basic intermediate and advanced ballet and modern dance instruction creative movement for children jazz hip-hop and yoga for teens to adults. “A lot of us have experience with negative critique ” Palmer says. So instead of glitzy costumes and stagy recitals they support monthly showings where choreographers share their work in front of their peers in an open positive exchange of ideas where the dancers are respected the work is valued and the approach is objective.

As a child Suzanne loved making up dances and staging little productions at home in Denver. She went to the University of Colorado in Boulder and majored in dance. But unless you’re going to New York City Palmer says there aren’t many opportunities to find dance work.

That hardly seems the case as she talks about the role of dance in her life. She’s a teacher of movement for her daughter’s Montessori school and has also directed school plays and musicals as well as taught yoga. She found her way into Wilmington’s Independent Choreographers at the Community Art Center and onto the stage as a field choreographer for the North Carolina Dance Festival six years ago — a role she recreated this year in a new piece she set to Appalachia Waltz performed by Yo-Yo Ma with composers Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor.

“It’s wild. I fell in love with the music ” Palmer says a natural starting place from which she builds her choreography with a kinetic vocabulary linking phrases like a string of movements — sometimes to silence sometimes with subtext sometimes layering and looping sound. In addition to her own work Palmer performs in La Siesta and The Corset two pieces choreographed by Amy Smith Pierce.

Pierce a Wilmington native started dancing at age four. She auditioned for was accepted to attended and graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts where she earned her high school diploma and her college degree in dance. From there she moved to New York where she performed in modern companies for nine years. With Bill Young and Dancers she toured abroad performing and teaching modern ballet and contact improvisation.Though the dancers did not speak the same language they connected through the language of dance. She and her husband musician Troy Pierce moved to Wilmington after 9/11. She was the only local choreographer to have her work accepted by the 2007 North Carolina Dance Festival which toured Greensboro Boone Raleigh and Charlotte before appearing in Wilmington in February and then wrapping in Asheville.

La Siesta which premiered at Dancealorus during the Cucalorus Film Festival in November is an interactive dance film shot by Ryan Risley and Nate Panning at Wrightsville Beach performed by Pierce and Palmer with Bonnie Moss and Trilby Shier set to the music of Pedro Vega Francia with vocals by Ibrahim Ferrar from the Buena Vista Social Club.

The same foursome rehearsed and performed The Corset a piece Pierce premiered during the dance festival abdicating her central role at times to Moss. “I feel it’s important to honor the dancers for the contributions they make — their bodies their ideas their spirit ” Pierce said.

She says her work is visceral. “It comes from my guts. It has to come from my body. I really have to be in it. I’m interested in movement invention.” She almost always starts with music and says “It inspires me energetically whether I’m dancing with it against it or ignoring it.”

There is no ignoring the music bed for The Corset an invention of restraint and release set to Ravel’s only string quartet. “The piece started abstractly. The corset idea was the muse ” Pierce admits “the voice in your head sometimes when you’re sleeping. I tried to ignore it but sometimes things need to be said.”

In The Corset Pierce wears the tight-fitting flesh-toned undergarment over a black chiffon dress. As she struggles with a painful repetitious mind-body pattern Shier tightens the corset strings and Palmer loosens them while Pierce and alternately Moss struggle to release the past for the unknown. “I feel like I made my point ” Pierce says.

She teaches and takes classes with the Dance Cooperative and applauds the group for their initiative. “It’s such a great non-profit and they need to stay afloat and it’s tough ” Pierce says. “They offer scholarships for kids and they’re not even getting paid to teach.”

Palmer believes that dance isn’t particularly accessible to a wide audience. “It’s looked at with a limited eye ” she says “nice music pretty costumes. It’s expensive to produce rehearsal space costs money and you’re spending other people’s time.”

“We think we’re a pretty great bunch of women. Most of us have degrees in dance and after moving to Wilmington we found there weren’t many outlets for adults. The focus is on kids and competition and most of us see that as an aberration of our art ” Palmer says.

“From my vast dance experience they’re really doing a good thing here ” Pierce says. “Not just in the efforts they’re making and in their intention but in the quality of the work and the teaching and the performances. They’re constantly trying to better themselves to raise the barre and create a modern dance community in Wilmington which we’re struggling to have and have been struggling for years. It’s pretty remarkable what they’re doing. It’s unprecedented.”

Side Barre

Anne Firmender is a Connecticut native schooled at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance. She is the school director of the Dance Cooperative. “I call myself a teacher first a choreographer second and a dancer third ” Firmender says.

She moved to Wilmington in 1998. “There was a group here called the Wilmington Independent Choreographers (WIC). All of us were teaching at various schools both public and private dance schools in Wilmington and none of us ever got to take class because we were always teaching in the evening. So we started daytime classes. One of the studios donated space and then from there the Dance Cooperative kept growing and growing. WIC closed and so we took over the production of modern shows in the area particularly the North Carolina Dance Festival.”

“There was no modern dance studio in Wilmington. The Wilmington Ballet School offered modern but their main focus was and is ballet. Tracey Varga who is a teacher and choreographer in the area has a dance company called ‘Forward Motion’ which is also a non-profit and she teaches modern jazz and tap at the YWCA. Besides the DREAMS program there wasn’t any affordable dance. Our number one priority was to be able to fill that void in Wilmington ” Firmender says.

She initiated the Dance Cooperative’s Emerging Choreographers Showcase inspired by a teen choreographers program sponsored by the Santa Barbara Dance Alliance in California.

“We modeled our program directly after their program but changed it from teen choreographers to emerging choreographers. In our Showings Series the third Sunday of each month we had young choreographers coming that we felt would benefit from being a part of a mentor process ” Firmender says.

Now the program is open to ages 13 and up. To participate in the Emerging Choreographers Showcase participants are required to present their work twice during monthly showings. “If they’re under 18 their mentor has to be with them in the studio ” Firmender said. “It’s a huge volunteer commitment for all the mentors. We give them feedback and then they produce the show.”

When new classes begin in September the Dance Cooperative enrollment is 50 percent fee-based and 50 percent scholarship and work-study. The monthly showings begin immediately for the Emerging Choreographers Showcase in December. In November Dancealorus returns and in February they host the North Carolina Dance Festival. “We usually do a spring show in late April or early May called Spring and Rebound ” Firmender says. Dial 763-4995 or visit www.thedancecooperative.org.