Richmond: Old City, New Dance

October 10, 2010

I love discovering vital pockets of dance around the country. In Richmond, VA, there’s a great small ballet company and a thriving modern dance scene. Last week I saw an afternoon performance at the Richmond Ballet Building and also toured a brand new hub of independent dance.


Not every ballet company looks good close-up, but all these dances sprang into life in the company’s 257-seat Studio Theatre. Young, ebullient, and bursting with energy, they danced a commissioned work by Ma Cong, Ershter Vals (“First Waltz”). This is a touching, full-bodied, inventive piece that imagines the spirit of people dancing at a concentration camp (probably Theresienstadt, where Jews kept the arts going in the face of certain death). It focused on the hope and possible love rather than despair. The dancers swooped through their waltzes beautifully, with much tenderness between partners. I liked how ballet slippers (as opposed to pointe shoes) gave it a soft yet still balletic look. In a group of vivacious performers, Maggie Small stole my heart—so free and giving. And Thomas Garrett, with his open, expansive upper body, kept pulling my eye.


The second piece Clowns and Others, was by Salvatore Aiello (1944–1995), whose work I had never seen. Jerri Kumery, Richmond Ballet’s ballet master, is also curator of the Salvatore Aiello Trust and staged the ballet. With cartoon-like characters and mischievous behavior, it reminded me of MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations (thank goodness the costumes weren’t quite as lavishly ridiculous). It was genuinely funny, with clever touches here and there. When a dancer removes her mask to reveal herself, it turns out she has an identical mask underneath. When one clown goes around clubbing everyone, he quakes as he is about to club a sweet young girl, and instead clubs himself on the head continually as he backs into the wing.


Clowns and Others
was a testament to how the Richmond Ballet dancers perform to the hilt. And sitting up close, you could see all facial expressions: happy, sad, smug, or rueful, making the motivation of every action crystal clear.


The two halves made a very complete program—just what a chamber ballet group should be doing. And from all accounts, credit goes to Stoner Winslett, who’s been running the company for more than 30 years. A woman director! A highly successful woman director of a ballet company, with a long track record! In fact, dancers like working with her so much that they stay for years, and there’s very little turnover. (Click here to read more on the company.)


In a discussion after the performance, some of the dancers said it’s become easier to get their friends to come to these shorter, less expensive showings that the ones in a big theater. 


But my visit to Richmond didn’t end there. I cross the James River to see Dogtown Dance Theatre, a terrific new space for independent dance (re)built by choreographer Rob Petres and his dancer/wife Lea Marshall (a Dance Magazine writer). At this beautifully renovated 1939 gymnasium (the tall, arched windows reminded me of the Cunningham studio), they’ve presented choreographers like Maria Bauman, formerly of Urban Bush Women, and Scott Putnam, director of the local Amaranth Arts Dance Company.


I also met Jess Burgess and Danica Kalemdaroglu, who co-direct the Richmond-based RVA Dance Collective, which aims to bring the arts together. (They’ll perform at Dogtown next month.) It’s great to see new sprouts of activity in this age-old city (established in the early 1600s!).


And I learned more about RB’s outreach program for 4th graders. Amazingly, their Minds in Motion program has partnered with the likes of NASA and the Federal Reserve Bank. So they are serious about bringing dance into public schools in major ways. (Click here to read our recent story about Minds in Motion.)


The slice of life I saw in Richmond showed me that you don’t have to live in NYC, San Francisco, or Chicago to be part of a thriving dance culture. I loved that there are crossovers too: the ballet people and the modern people seem to know each other. I think that’s partly due to VCU stretching out in different directions. But it’s also due to people’s willingness to have exchanges with each other.



Lauren Fagone and Thomas Garrett in
Ershter Vals by Ma Cong. Photo by Aaron Sutten © Richmond Ballet 2009. All rights reserved.