For anyone feeling like their cultural exposure to dance has been lacking lately, South Orange Performing Arts Center has just the night to inject some rhythm into your life. On February 19, three dance companies of distinctly different genres—African, modern, and tap—will share one stage during the Triple Threat Dance Showcase. Not only is this a rare opportunity to take in a trio of dance styles in one sitting, but it’s a cultural offering that its presenters feel is too infrequently seen in this part of the state. So they’re making a change and lacing up their dance shoes.
“SOPAC doesn’t really have a tradition of having a dance audience,” executive director Mark Packer says, who is making the art form a priority of the venue’s programming. Citing the challenge of building an audience for dance-centric events and that programs of Triple Threat’s nature are not common in the area, Packer believes it is organizations like SOPAC’s duty to support local dance artists. “Dance itself is an area of the arts that’s struggling and we have amazing choreographers in New Jersey. They deserve to be showcased and have this exposure so that people can be reintroduced to the form, and thus build a new audience.”
Feeling there was a need for more dance programming, SOPAC decided to form this one-night mini dance festival. Packer’s team consulted with advocacy group Dance New Jersey on which dance companies to invite to participate. The resulting lineup consists of African-influenced Umoja Dance Company, modern-based Freespace Dance, and tap-centric NJTAP Dance Ensemble.
“I was excited because there aren’t many dance festival shows in New Jersey,” Karen Love, artistic director of Umoja says. “To be able to represent three different styles of dance all in one [event] is great. We haven’t done that in a long time in Jersey.”
“We really are all partners in the art scene,” Deborah Mitchell, artistic director of NJTAP Ensemble says of sharing the stage with two other dance companies. “The more audiences that see that, the more it unifies all of us and gives us a voice together.”
Despite being separate entities, all three artistic directors feel that joining forces for one event strengthens their odds against obstacles they face. “There are so few opportunities in New Jersey for dance companies to present their work, especially in theaters like SOPAC,” says Donna Scro, artistic director of Freespace Dance. “Most presenters’ concern is that dance shows won’t bring an audience. That’s why they’re hesitant to present dance companies. In this case, bringing three different companies and genres together will ensure a better house. From an artistic director and choreographer’s point of view, there aren’t enough opportunities like this. If we had more support from theaters and presenters, then we would could continue to grow our audience.”
While Triple Threat is a night to be enjoyed by all levels of dance enthusiasts, SOPAC believes this is an event to create new fans of the art form. “I think some people are a little intimidated by dance. They think it might not be accessible to them,” Packer says. In order to keep the evening as accessible as possible, the show will run just over an hour, with each company presenting a 20-minute act.
For its showcase, NJTAP is throwing it back with a jazzy history lesson, paying homage to the famous tap acts of the 20s and 30s. “What the audience is going to be treated to will be duets and trios doing pieces of work that illustrate how dynamic and extraordinary it is to see two, three or four people who have come together with one mind to perform a piece,” Mitchell says.
Umoja is going to transport audience members to West Africa with indigenous sounds of the shekere (a gourd instrument adorned with beads) and 10 performers who simultaneously dance and drum. Presenting three styles of West African dance, Umoja’s set includes a harvest dance called Kassa, a routine called Voun Voun Ba, and a welcoming community dance. “People are going to love the drumming and the energy; it’s live music,” says Love. “You get that connection between the dancers and the musician. People are drawn in in by the drums.”
Featuring four dancers, Freespace wants to engage audiences’ imagination with its piece called “Subtext,” a meditation on society. Then a solo piece will examine the life of a woman from her 20s through her 40s. “It’s like a modern dance soap opera,” Scro says of her company’s showcase. “It invites them to think, to feel something. People will be intrigued to come up with their own story.”
Underwritten by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Gertrude L. Hirsch Charitable Trust, Triple Threat has been built with the intention of reaching new audiences and making dance accessible. Mitchell believes that by presenting an audience with a variety of dance styles, people can discover styles they never before would have thought they’d enjoy. “That’s exactly what this kind of collaboration does. The arts community needs collaboration. We need partners,” Mitchell says. “Often when trying to do funding for the arts, if you can help funders realize that you’re not just trying to educate or entertain a small pocket of people, but that your audience is much broader, you can leverage that support. This is easier to do when you’re willing to have partners.”
While SOPAC is describing Triple Threat as an “inaugural” event, Packer says the venue is open to programming more nights like this if the event is a success. It’s at least clear from all three dance companies’ artistic directors that this is exactly the type of event New Jersey dance needs. “I think it’s going to be exciting for people who maybe are experiencing dance for the first time,” Packer says.” t’s easy to interpret, easy to understand, exciting, dynamic work.”
Don’t miss Triple Threat Dance Showcase on February 19 at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, located at One SOPAC Way in South Orange, New Jersey.