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By Nancy Wozny
Alisa Mittin and Makenzi Rasey breeze through the air in remarkably tight unison, considering the freewheeling quality of Mittin’s choreography. While the pair have been dancing together since they were 5, this is their first performance as a duo. It’s a New York debut of sorts—Buffalo, New York, that is, their hometown. The piece, titled Prelude to something that might possibly happen in the future but we are not quite sure what that is yet, says quite a bit about their current state. Mittin and Rasey, who both graduated from California Institute for the Arts last year, lacked funds to try to build dance careers in a bigger city, so they returned to Buffalo to live and dance.
Young people have found work scarce in dance meccas such as New York and San Francisco, while smaller cities like Buffalo and New Orleans have welcomed home a new crop of BFAs to revitalize their dance ranks. Living with parents and looking for what’s available in their hometowns can be a smart strategy for many a dance major. Home comes with a temporarily free roof, support from friends and family, and considerably lower living expenses.
Mittin, 23, dreamed of performing in Johannes Wieland’s company. She got good feedback from the choreographer during a long audition workshop, but a spot in his next project never materialized. Without funds to stay in New York City, Buffalo became her next destination. At CalArts she had dabbled in choreography but remained focused on dancing and performing. “When I got home, I realized if I wanted to make something happen, I would have to be the one to do it,” she says. “It’s exciting and surprising to create my own work.” Having Rasey, her dance chum since childhood, help her out has been a great source of support. “We finish each other’s dance sentences,” quips Rasey, 23, who is elated to have Mittin make work on her. “Since we trained together, our improvisations feel so fluid and easy.”
Both dancers graduated with big tuition debts, so while continuing to dance Rasey works as a paralegal, and Mittin waitresses and works in a thrift shop. Rasey remembers getting the grim figures about the job market during her senior year. “I got very nervous,” she says. “I had never planned on moving back, and I’m still a little jealous of friends who ended up in New York.” She lived with her parents for a time to save money but eventually moved to Allentown, a trendy Buffalo neighborhood. “It’s tricky being at home after being on your own,” says Rasey. “I’m not used to having someone to answer to again.”
Some dancers hit their stride quickly once they return home. Kristen Frankiewicz’s whimsical solo I’m So alone, danced in spike heels during the Big Range Dance Festival at Houston’s Barnevelder Theater last June, seemed to be saying, “Here I am, deal with it.” After graduating from University of Texas at Austin in 2007, Frankiewicz, 25 and a Houston native, had set her sights on San Francisco and earning a place in contemporary dance company ODC. She made it through several audition rounds but ended up without a job offer, so she opted for Plan B and headed home.
Before long, Frankiewicz landed a spot in Suchu Dance Company, one of Houston’s leading postmodern troupes, and began to choreograph on the side. With her first good review in hand, offers to make work are starting to trickle in. After saving enough money, she now lives in The Heights, an up-and-coming neighborhood just minutes from downtown. Thanks to scholarships and grants, Frankiewicz has no tuition debt, so she can support herself teaching and dancing, and enjoy the low cost of Texas living.
Home is not always a familiar place; there can be an element of the unknown in returning. Cities don’t stand still. The last time many of these 20-something dancers lived in their hometowns they were in high school, studying at their local dance studios. Growing up, Frankiewicz never strayed far from her suburban home. With Suchu based at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex, the indie home for dance and theater, she’s at the center of Houston’s creative hub. “The Houston I found when I got back was a huge shock,” she says. “I’m home all right, but it feels like a whole new place, populated with artists of all genres.”
Likewise Mittin and Rasey found a newly revitalized city when they returned to Buffalo, and discovered a whole tribe of young people who have relocated there. “It’s really exciting to meet dancers who are not from Buffalo,” says Rasey. “There’s a spark here; I find I’m looking at the city with new eyes.”
Moving back home means something different to Maggie Lynch, a New Orleans native, who witnessed Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. Lynch hoped to join Diavolo Dance Theatre, a contemporary company in Los Angeles, after graduating from Louisiana State University in 2008. She did an intensive with the company, but ended up heading home to New Orleans. After taking part in the Katrina clean-up process, Lynch found herself wanting to continue the rebuilding effort. Now Lynch dances with Tsunami Dance Company, one of the city’s more established modern companies, and supports herself waitressing and gets help from her parents. “I am really growing as a dancer in Tsunami,” says Lynch. “Being part of what’s happening in New Orleans is an amazing opportunity. The dance scene is just now picking up steam.”
But there are unanticipated challenges to being the ones to build a dance scene. Finding a good dance class in smaller cities can be tough. “It takes sheer force of will to stay in shape,” admits Mittin, who was recently invited to take company class with choreographer Jon Lehrer’s new company, based in Buffalo. “Still, there are no open ballet classes for us.” Rasey misses the communal atmosphere of the dance classes she took in college. “Class is like the glue,” she says. “We have found other dancers needing class, so we are thinking of starting our own teaching collective.” Lynch solved the no-class dilemma by enrolling as a continuing education student at Tulane University to study with John Allen, who also choreographs for Tsunami. Frankiewicz has been lucky to find numerous classes in local dance studios, in addition to Suchu’s company class.
Returning home is not without regret for what could have happened. “I still have to fight a sense of defeat,” says Frankiewicz. “But I am driven to make the most of my situation.” Mittin and Ramsey keep in contact with college friends who have found work in New York. “I have mixed feelings; I get a bit bitter sometimes about the horrible timing of when I entered the job market,” Mittin confesses. “But I want to start something right here in Buffalo. I am pushing myself in different ways than I would have had I moved to New York. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by my Buffalo pride.”
While none of the dancers we spoke to has ruled out moving in the future, for now, being part of a hometown dance renaissance holds a unique source of empowerment. Someday, they think, people may talk about how the recession had the unexpected benefit of reshaping the cultural landscape in their cities and they will have been part of it. “Maybe we can shine a light on dance that people might not otherwise see in cities like Buffalo,” reflects Mittin. “As long as we are dancing, does it really matter where?”
Nancy Wozny, a Buffalo native, writes about the arts and health from Houston.
Pictured: Kristin Frankiewicz in Jennifer Wood's Impluvium. Photo by Louise Seletan, courtesy Suchu.