There’s an instance in Amy Ragsdale’s solo dance, “50,” when she unfurls into a high, arching barrel turn that seems to vault her from one corner of the stage to another in a single graceful leap. It’s one of those jumps synonymous with, say, a young Mikhail Baryshnikov, where he would transform the move—in which a dancer propels off one foot into a complete turn of the body, arms extended, before landing on the other foot—into a demonstration of uncommon height and athleticism. Ragsdale doesn’t quite pull a Baryshnikov, but the artistic director of Headwaters Dance Company completely lets go into the jump, making it just one exclamation point among a series of them in her unfettered, impassioned and intimate18-minute dance.
It’s easy to understand why “50” is among the most compelling pieces in Headwaters’ upcoming concert. Too often, modern dance is weighed down by preconceptions of weirdly abstract movement and inaccessible storylines; there can be a curious lack of actual dancing in some performances. But in “50,” a rare showcase of Ragsdale as a performer, we clearly see a woman just past her 50th birthday simultaneously looking back on her early years and embracing the inevitable push to life’s latter half. When Ragsdale dances, as with that bursting barrel turn, she taps into the sort of carefree energy usually reserved for solitary moments in front of a mirror, speakers blaring. There’s no hint of age, injuries or care. It’s simply a blissful celebration tempered with brief, heartfelt anecdotes. She talks of young love, then dances like a teenager, all giddy and effortless. She speaks of parenthood and professionalism, then works herself into a frenzy of motion before collapsing. She speaks of death—twice, actually—gently finding a rhythm between sweeping gestures and meditative calm. It’s never too much, never maudlin, even when Ragsdale finds herself emotional, voice wavering and eyes watering. It adds up to the perfect example of a mature artist rallying for one last performance.
“When I was making it, I was thinking I may not dance much more in my life,” says Ragsdale, who plans to retire in May after teaching dance at the University of Montana for 20 years. “I did it with an eye toward it being sort of a last hurrah, although part of me hopes it’s not really a true last hurrah.”
Set against the full program for Headwaters’ gala concert, which debuts Thursday, Jan. 31, “50” is a bit of an anomaly. The repertory company, which Ragsdale co-founded in 1993 and renamed in 2004 (it was previously affiliated with UM and known as MoTrans), regularly commissions new work or purchases existing pieces from choreographers around the country. “50” is Ragsdale’s first autobiographical dance in seven years and was only included in the concert after urging from colleagues and a particular push from longtime Headwaters dancer Brian Gerke.
Two other premieres more representative of the company’s typical work stand out in the gala program. “Straight Duet,” which was co-choreographed by UM alum and former Headwaters dancer Nicole Wolcott, and the third installment of Ragsdale’s ambitious, multiyear “Montana Suite” project both demonstrate the company’s commitment to varied modern dance that can appeal to both novice and experienced audiences alike.
“Straight Duet” presents a lighthearted, playful commentary on newlyweds. Kitty Sailer, dressed in a wedding gown, excitedly preens for the audience on one side of an upright mattress while Gerke, dressed in a tuxedo, channels nervous energy into a stunning solo on the other. The two eventually join together, leaning the mattress down on the floor and using it as part springboard, part landing pad for a physical mating dance that’s as vigorous as it is sensuous. The short piece acts as a perfect showcase for Headwaters’ two most promising dancers.
The “Montana Suite” is part of a much larger vision for the company. In 2005, Ragsdale decided to invite renowned choreographers to Montana to tour specific regions for weeks at a time, and then create work inspired by the landscape, people and culture. The project’s first installment featured a theatrical account of Butte’s history by Jane Comfort. Ragsdale continued the series last year with a minimalist rendition of the Hi-Line by John Jasperse. This year, the company tapped New York City-based Lar Lubovitch, who started his own modern dance company nearly 40 years ago, for an original piece inspired by the Rocky Mountain Front.
“I never know what we’re going to get, but I’ve tried hard to match different choreographers with areas that seem to speak to their work,” says Ragsdale, who personalized a two-week itinerary for Lubovitch over the summer that included a stop at the Choteau Rodeo. “With Lar, his work has this sort of awe-inspiring, lush, very grand and beautiful quality to it, so sending him in the direction of dramatic landscapes seemed like the right fit.”
Steeped in complex composition and vibrant movements, Lubovitch focuses mostly on water. Six dancers constantly swirl and sway to an original sound score built around various versions of the Christian hymn, “Shall We Gather by the River?” Aside from a hokey jig that interrupts the 16-minute piece’s pleasant flow, it’s a lovely lyrical take on the region and a nice compliment to the project’s other offerings.
“I’m still looking for the next choreographer,” says Ragsdale, “so we can focus on the southeastern part of the state. That’s the next step.”
Ragsdale hopes that once the project is complete, perhaps as early as next year, Headwaters will tour it across the country, introducing the state’s only professional dance company and Big Sky’s iconic imagery to a nationwide audience.
So, while Ragsdale may have crafted her final performance, she is far from finished promoting Montana dance.
The Headwaters Dance Company Gala Concert runs Thursday, Jan. 31 through Saturday, Feb. 2, at 7:30 PM, at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. There is a Saturday matinee at 2 PM. $12/$8 students and seniors.