Even Hi-Line residents admit the beauty of their homeland lies in vast nothingness, and that beauty can sometimes be tough to appreciate. But when New York choreographer John Jasperse set a work of modern dance on Missoula's Headwaters Dance Company after spending nearly two weeks on the wind-swept stretch, one hardened Hi-Line native saw the landscape through a new lens.
"This woman from somewhere outside of Great Falls came up to me after the performance and she had a tear in her eye," recalls Amy Ragsdale, Headwaters' artistic director. "She was in tears after she saw it and she said, 'I always thought there was nothing there and I wanted to get away as fast as I could, and I did. This is the first time I've ever'—and this is going to make me teary—'that I've ever recognized that it can be beautiful.' So there was something in that piece that allowed her to see something completely different than what she saw growing up there."
It'd be hard for Ragsdale to relay a more powerful and telling example of her ambitious Montana Suite project. The complete program, which has been four years in the making, started as a way to make Montana's only professionally touring modern dance company "more Montanan," as Ragsdale puts it. Starting in 2005, Ragsdale tapped one prestigious New York choreographer each year, convinced him or her to travel to Montana and, with little more than a list of contact names and some local history, sent them off to a region of the state for a week or two. Jane Comfort, known for her social and political themes, tackled Butte and Helena. Jasperse, critically acclaimed for twisting time and space in dance, immersed himself in the Hi-Line. Lar Lubovitch, who typically uses sweeping, lush movements, traveled to the Rocky Mountain Front. Donna Uchizono explored eastern Montana, drawing inspiration from Crow and Cheyenne culture, and attended a sacred Sun Dance. Together, the four individual pieces present a mostly abstract but certainly recognizable reflection of the people and places that make Montana what it is. The full-length evening performance premieres this week.
"Montana has given us a lot," says Ragsdale. "I was trying to find a way to give back to Montana in a way that Montanans would find important and moving and relevant to them."
Ragsdale didn't realize exactly what she was in for—or what the finished product would look like—when she launched the project. Each choreographer worked independently, and never saw any of the other pieces. But by blind luck and some strategic matchmaking, the concert mixes a range of different dance styles and aesthetics. For instance, Comfort's take on Butte's mining culture uses literal imagery—actual mining costumes and props—whereas Jasperse employs stage-length ropes and stiff parchment costumes to convey rolling wheat fields and frozen dresses on a clothesline.
"This is a huge state, so there's a lot of variation, both in landscape and culture," says Ragsdale, who admits she skewed the project slightly by focusing on more rural areas. "But there are certain themes that come up over and over...like the resilience and the perseverance of the people. I think for these four choreographers coming from New York, they're struck by the fact that the life is not easy. It takes a lot of work. It's hard here—not just physically, but financially and emotionally."
While many aspects of the multi-year project worked out, Montana Suite wasn't without its challenges. Ragsdale hoped the pieces would help Headwaters land more touring opportunities around the state and country, but the recession has made that an uphill climb. It's currently only slated to be staged in Missoula and Helena. Headwaters has also experienced turnover with its dancers since the project started, forcing Ragsdale to hold auditions in Salt Lake City to help fill her company. Ironically, the Montana Suite will feature work from four New York choreographers performed by dancers flown in from out of state. (Two dancers, Brian Gerke and Joy French, are alumni of the company and the University of Montana dance program.)
"It's been hard," Ragsdale says. "The recession has really hurt us. But we never once thought about not finishing it. I'm the type of person who, once it's going, it's going."
In fact, Ragsdale views this week's premiere as more of the project's beginning rather than its culmination. She hopes Thursday's fundraising concert can help the company afford a booking agent, and that the new hire will solve the issue of getting Montana Suite out into other communities. Ideally, she says, the next two to three years will be committed to touring.
"We've toured in a lot of small towns, and modern dance as an art form is still really foreign," says Ragsdale. "So how can we use this art form to talk about something that will give people less familiar with the art form a framework? I think the Montana Suite does that, and I think it helps people open up about art and Montana in a new way."
Montana Suite premieres at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts Thursday, Feb. 4, at 7:30 PM, with a benefit concert and silent auction. $25. It continues Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM, with a 2 PM Saturday matinee. $15/$10 students and seniors.