Urbanity Dance artistic director Betsi Graves calls the Boston Contemporary Dance Festival this weekend “a crazy dream” and “a huge leap of faith.” But it’s a stretch her five-year-old company is more than willing to make for what she hopes will be a big community payoff.
“I have so much respect for all the companies in Boston, and that’s why I want to take a leadership role in something we can all benefit from,” Graves said. “It’s a chance for companies to come together, showcase their work, and learn from each other, and for audiences who’ve only supported one company to see other companies.”
It’s also a chance for local audiences to see acclaimed troupes from as far away as Alaska, Canada, and California, including Alaska Dance Theatre, Robert Moses’ Kin, and Ellenore Scott’s new ELSCO Dance. The all-volunteer festival features three different concerts at the Paramount Center Aug. 17 involving 35 companies. Last year’s inaugural festival casting call resulted in roughly 40 responses, and 15 companies were chosen. This year, more than 100 companies hoped to participate.
“It was such an overwhelming response, we added a third show to specifically highlight local companies,” Graves said. The noon show is the “Boston Edition,” while concerts at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. are national showcases. The day of performances is preceded by a day of free master classes (for ages 14 and up) and two panel discussions, all open to the public.
Contemporary styles represented in the festival performances will range from ballet to a wide variety of modern aesthetics to dance incorporating ethnic traditions from around the world. Expected highlights include a world premiere by “So You Think You Can Dance” all-star Scott. She says her new “Run, Boy,” set to music by Woodkid, is a nonstop, high-energy trio for three of her ELSCO male dancers. “It’s about the word escape and how many different ways you can express that in athleticism, physicality, emotion,” Scott said in a recent phone interview.
Scott, whose roots are in both traditional modern dance and the commercial world, says that the festival offers much-needed exposure for her fledgling troupe. “I’m hoping to redefine the dialogue of dance between what is commercial and what is concert, so maybe we don’t need to use those words anymore,” she said, “and redefine the connection and communication between audience and dancer.”
Alaska Dance Theatre artistic director and resident choreographer Gillmer Duran is looking for a similar rise in visibility. “Exposure is very important to us to break through our isolation here,” he explained. “We reinvented the company two years ago, generating a style here that is unique, that has an Alaskan voice, and it will be very beneficial to be recognized from the outside and come back here.” The Anchorage-based company brings a trio called “Flat Out Dark,” with music by Zoë Keating, that Duran says examines the effects of the presence and absence of light. “It explores how we try to break through barriers — the geographic barriers, philosophical barriers, climate. As artists we are sometimes in a very dark place.”
Graves is especially excited to see the company Robert Moses’ Kin from San Francisco. “That’s probably the biggest name coming,” she said. “[Moses’] work has a real eye for athleticism mixed with ballet technique and fluidity, finding the beautiful in unusual, unique movements.” Urbanity Dance will contribute two large ensemble works to the festival, one by Graves, the other by Jaclyn Walsh.
All the companies are paying their own way to the festival, including dancer fees, airfare, and room and board. “Alaska Dance Theatre started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to get here,” Graves said. “These companies want to come here to share what they do, and they’re hoping to find more supporters, get good press, make a great contact with another company. There’s a great sense of opportunity, that we can learn from what other companies are doing artistically and how they are dealing with the same financial and infrastructure challenges.”
Graves expects festival costs to hit $20,000, mostly for rental of the Paramount Center for the two days. Urbanity Dance is on the hook for the whole bill, which it hopes to cover through ticket sales. Graves said the company will have to sell 800 tickets over the three shows to break even. “Last year we sold 600 seats, so we’ll have to sell more to be sustainable,” she said with a hint of trepidation. “But we have more companies involved, so that should help.”
For Graves, who taught at Boston Ballet for 10 years, the festival is an investment in Urbanity Dance as well as in Boston itself, which she considers a “groundbreaking city for ideas and the arts.” Since Urbanity’s founding five years ago, the company has not only performed across the country, but it has established a studio and school in the South End as well as partnerships with public schools, juvenile detention centers, and health organizations. “The core of our vision is really service,” Graves said. “We want to raise the visibility of what is currently being done in the Boston dance community.”