Southern Maine is in a contemporary dance resurgence, thanks to community building by a tightly knit group of performers and organizers.
Dancer and choreographer Vanessa Anspaugh describes Maine’s burgeoning contemporary dance community as brimming with “frontier energy.” She came to Maine from New York, where she’d built her career, for a one-year teaching position at Bowdoin College. When the job was done Anspaugh decided to stay; she’d fallen in love with Maine. “This is such a magical place with such sweet community support for dance.” And it’s growing, thanks to a small but mighty group of dedicated artists who are revitalizing the performative art form, creating opportunities for dancers and enthusiasts alike. “It’s always a small pool, the number of people interested in contemporary dance,” Anspaugh says. “Here, those few people are bringing a lot of optimism, energy, and support [to contemporary dance]. They’re ready to share ideas.”
She’s not the only dance artist to relocate to Maine in recent years, drawn by factors like the affordability of rehearsal space, which includes both studios and Maine’s vast and varied outdoor landscape, usable to dancers who aren’t afraid to step out of the studio and into a less predictable environment. “There’s a sense of possibility here that I don’t feel even in New York, where resources are exhausted,” Anspaugh says. She works with Asher Woodworth, a local multidisciplinary artist, once a week for inquiry-based dance sessions. They’re exploring ideas rather than focusing on productions. “In New York, no one could afford to do that.”
Established performance artist Sara Juli, who combines dance, comedy and storytelling in her solo acts, left a busy performance schedule in New York for Portland four years ago, Juli thought Portland would be a good place to raise children while retaining a robust connection to the arts. “I decided to make SPACE Gallery my home,” she says. She debuted her first Maine show there in 2015, Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis, before taking it on an international tour. Her latest solo performance, Burnt-Out Wife, will also debut there this October, promoted by the non-profit performing arts giant Portland Ovations, which is responsible for bringing acts like Blue Man Group and the Russian National Ballet to the area. Juli’s billing among larger acts is the direct result of the growing local focus on dance.
She has been a vital part of that, networking on the behalf of contemporary dance nonstop since her arrival in Maine. She has been a vital part of that, networking on the behalf of contemporary dance nonstop since her arrival in Maine. When Juli’s not busy with her day job, running Surala Consulting, a non-profit she founded to help artists and organizations achieve their fundraising goals, she’s advocating for dance for Maine. Early on, she was part of a consortium of artists, including co-founders Cookie Harrist and Delaney McDonough, who began Moving Target Portland, a program that offers classes to the community on a pay-what-you-can basis, led by a new teaching artist every week. That popular program is housed within The Living Room, a dance collective directed by Kristen Stake, a 20-year veteran of the Maine dance scene. (A sign that advocacy is still needed; The Living Room was recently displaced from its South Portland studio by a major rent increase, and is still negotiating to find a space for Moving Target Portland.)
Maine has some history with dance. The Bates Dance Festival, which wraps up early this month, and for which Juli serves on the advisory council, was founded in 1984. And in 1968, Millicent Monks, an arts enthusiast and member of the Carnegie family, founded Ram Island Dance, an organization that would provide classes, performances and modern and contemporary dance programs until 2001, when she shifted her focus to arts sponsorship rather than the running of a dance company. Local dancers who still participate actively in the scene here credit Ram Island Dance with nurturing their development as artists and grounding a movement in Southern Maine.
“When Ram Island closed in 2001, there was a bit of a lull,” says Kate Marchesseault, owner of Portland’s Casco Bay Movers dance studio and director of Portland Youth Dance. She had danced with Ram Island for its last two years. “There weren’t as many young, professional dancers who had the time and energy to come together, take classes. There was a shift and a void left.” Juli stepped into it, boldly, doing everything from coordinating with Marchessault to offer dancers $10 rehearsal space at Casco Bay Movers to establishing a twice-annual choreography lab series to help dancers improve through critical feedback. “She laid so much groundwork,” says Bates Dance Festival director Shoshona Currier. “She gets it done.”
Juli and Marchessault joined forces on a project that empowers both professional and developing talent in a twice-yearly showcase, Maine Moves. Now in its third year, Maine Moves features works by both established dancers and one youth dancer or choreographer selected from Marchessault’s Portland Youth Dance company (the next showcase is Nov. 23). Student participants present their own work alongside seasoned dancers and receive professional photos as well as mentoring, giving them a taste of what a dance career could be like and the skills to pursue it. “We need about 10 more Sara Julis,” says Marchessault. “We understand that this is a small place and it makes us better if we help each other.”
If dance is the car, then marketing is the engine. No one knows this better than Riley Watts, founder of Portland Dance Month. which offers promotional materials and a calendar of dance events occurring each fall in Portland. The internationally renowned dancer returned to his home state of Maine three years ago. His idea to bring together multiple performances in Portland under a single marketing umbrella evolved organically, he says. “Sara [Juli] had gotten some money from the Maine Arts Commission and we were producing Moving In Space at SPACE Gallery. Then we had a Moving Target workshop,” he says. He looked at the calendar and realized how many dance shows were coming up. It made sense to figure out a way to group and highlight them. (This year’s Portland Dance Month falls between Oct. 4 and Nov. 23, and features performances at Maine State Ballet, Creative Portland, SPACE Gallery and a variety of other venues.)
Watts says that events like Maine Moves and Moving Target add up; they’re contributing to that frontier energy Vanessa Anspaugh describes. “We bring people to perform here, then they go home and say how awesome it is to perform in Portland, and how we invest in them.” In some cases, Watts says, those artists return to perform or teach again, and perhaps decide to relocate to Maine.
Like Anspaugh. And Allie James and Laura Nicoll, native Mainers lured back to their home state. James, a choreographer and the admissions director for the Bates Dance Festival, grew up in Portland. “I always felt like I wanted more of a performing dance community,” James says. She went to college in Chicago and danced both there and in New York. But five years ago James noticed something happening in her home state. Namely a “renewed energy” in the dance community. “This young group of artists are now engaged in work around identity and politics and being supported in ways that I haven’t seen before,” James says. Her own work focuses heavily on identity and her sense of self as a woman of color in a largely white state. She recently collaborated on a dance piece titled On Rage/Praise with René Johnson, artistic director of Maine’s Theatre Ensemble of Color, which was featured in Maine Moves last fall and is currently in further development. The lack of competition among dancers here and their willingness to collaborate has been “life-giving,” James says.
Nicoll grew up on Mount Desert Island and moved away to pursue her career. For the last three years, she has been back making dance in Maine, splitting her time between here and Brooklyn, New York. She teaches workshops and creates dance with both the Bates Dance Festival and Maine Moves and stays with family and friends across the state while she’s doing it. She and her brother, Rufus Morgan Kreilkamp Nicoll of Deer Isle, collaborate often on multidisciplinary arts endeavors through KREILKAMP NICOLL, their performance art company.
Then there is choreographer Meg Wolfe, who is about to relocate to Maine from Los Angeles. The move is partly inspired by her mother, an artist who lives in Deer Isle, but also, Wolfe says, ticking off a list: “Sara Juli, the Living Room, Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland. I’m excited to see support for a strongly diverse community of artists and perspectives.” Wolfe will perform in Maine Moves this November and plans to connect with the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts as she develops new roots. “After 15 years of forging community in L.A., I feel like that will continue to feed into my work here.”
For many, the term contemporary dance might call to mind images of Martha Graham ensconced in a dark infinity cloth, twisting her body in a manner that couldn’t be more different from the recognizable postures of a formal dance type like ballet. Graham was the height of avant-garde cool. We’re in a different era now, says Currier, of the Bates Dance Festival. “We’re in a contemporary dance time, as opposed to modern or postmodern. Contemporary dance is embodied thinking, not just solving problems and finding answers.”
Currier is a native Mainer who thought when she left in 1997 that she’d never be able to make a living in the performing arts in Maine. In 2017 she left Chicago, where she was the director of performing arts for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, and succeeded Laura Faure as director of the Bates Dance Festival. She felt she’d landed in a whole different atmosphere. Her mission at Bates is hyper-local. “We’re one of the more visible platforms for contemporary dance in Maine, so I want to make sure that we are using that platform to elevate local work. Not using only fly-ins, or focusing only on Europoean talent. We hold up our local touring, performing, hustling artists. We need to shine a light on them as well.”
It helps that some of them can’t, or won’t, be confined to a stage or behind a ticket booth. Two years ago Sara Juli made an appearance at a Portland City Council meeting to perform an excerpt of Shadow Artist, a piece that included spoken word, some panting and at one point, climbing onto a bemused spectator. A local television station called it “kooky” but the way the mood changed in the council chambers from a nervous “what is this?” to appreciative laughter and clapping felt like a persuasion, revealing the power of pushing boundaries and seeking out new audiences.
Then in 2018 Laura Nicoll used the streets of Portland as her stage for a piece during Portland Dance Month called PROMENADE. For two hours she traversed the streets in a journey that took her from the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal to the offices of Creative Portland, performing non-confrontational dance as she moved from one location to the other. She was solo then. Now she’s working on a new version. But the next time she performs it, she won’t be alone. A troupe of six performers will promenade through the streets. That’s the beauty of Maine’s dance community’s frontier energy; it makes for good company.
Chelsea Terris Scott is a writer and educator. She lives with her husband and their two daughters in Portland.
**This article has been updated to reflect that Maine Moves is a twice-yearly rather than annual event, to correct the photo credit for the image of Sara Juli, to clarify Juli’s involvement with Moving Target Portland and to correct the spelling of Meg Wolfe’s name.