Marisa Roth, Stacy Jacobsen, Natalie Molter, Jennifer-Wyatt and Sara Finch-Seward, left to right, perform in AzureVision’s “Dress My Flesh.”
In the early 1960s, the Judson Church Theatre Group and Grand Union dance troupe were struggling to find their footing. The fledgling independent companies aspired to recreate contemporary dance, to reach out to the community with an inclusive new art form, and they started by rehearsing and performing in rundown loft spaces of New York City. It was a humble beginning for those who are now widely considered the foundation of post-modern dance.
On a much smaller and intimately local level, you could say a similar movement began a few years ago in a Two Medicine living room. It was there where Stacy Jacobsen and Kay Izlar, two good friends and well-studied dancers stuck working for the Park Service, began experimenting with different dance vocabulary. What started out as fun—consider it the equivalent of musicians casually jamming—gave way to greater plans. Jacobsen saw the chance to cultivate dance and dancers in the Flathead, and introduce an underserved audience to bold new work. The seeds of AzureVision Dance Collective were laid.
“At the time, I was doing the whole debate: New York or Montana? I was asking myself, ‘How am I going to be a dancer in Montana?’” says Jacobsen, a 2001 graduate of The North Carolina School of the Arts who has danced under the tutelage of teachers from Martha Graham Dance Company, José Limón Company and Alvin Ailey. “Then [Kay and I] started dancing in my living room and the idea came off that, okay, we’re going to produce a dance concert. This is something I need to do. It simply has to happen.”
And it did. In early 2005, AzureVision launched a one-night-only concert of original work created by and featuring western Montana choreographers and dancers. In year two, the company sold out its show at the O’Shaughnessy Center. Another strong showing last year prompted the Whitefish Theatre Company (WTC) to add AzureVision to its 2008 schedule, meaning that the independent dance company no longer had to rent the theater and cover all of its own publicity. This weekend, AzureVision’s latest concert of seven original pieces opens at the O’Shaughnessy as part of the WTC season.
“That first concert, everyone afterwards was wondering who we were and where we were from,” explains company co-director Jennifer Walker-Wyatt, a graduate of the University of Montana and the first person Jacobsen called after her Two Medicine epiphany. “They had no idea that we were from the area and wanted to know what else we did and when we were going to have another show again. Immediately we got this feedback that this was something the community wanted.”
Part of AzureVision’s broad appeal includes consciously involving a range of different dance styles, from classical ballet to hip hop. The upcoming concert features yet another style—a Bob Fosse-inspired jazz piece.
“What’s interesting about the company is how it’s such an eclectic group of high-end dancers,” says Izler, a former professional dancer and teacher in Europe who once danced for Remy Charlip, an original member of Judson Church. Izler continues to perform and choreograph with AzureVision while serving as artistic advisor of the company. “This is not just a modern company. This is a collection of really technically proficient dancers performing in all kinds of different styles.”
What’s more, AzureVision is deeply committed to reaching out to the Flathead community. Last year, for instance, Jacobsen created a piece with volunteers from the area ranging in age from 20 to 80. The collaborative work raised the question, “What is a woman’s responsibility to the next generation?” and relied on the volunteers to come up with answers through dialogue, journaling and, eventually, movement over weeks of rehearsals.
“It was the sort of thing where when we were done, half the audience was in tears,” says Jacobsen. “And the thing was, it wasn’t mine. It was theirs. That piece belonged to everyone.”
With the company now entering its fourth year, the founders of AzureVision feel as if they’ve accomplished their original goal of bringing professional-level dance to the Flathead and are now looking to expand. There’s talk of touring, hiring an executive director to boost fundraising or, as a start, paying dancers more for concerts. In past years, before being picked up by WTC, the company was barely able to compensate anyone.
“We make enough money to break even and then hand our dancers a $10 gift,” explains Jacobsen. “It’s like, hey, thanks for your hundreds of hours of work. Now, here’s your bath salts!”
On a certain level, Jacobsen understands that large amounts of work and small monetary rewards are part of the answer to her question four years ago—“How am I going to be a dancer in Montana?” But what continues to drive her and the members of AzureVision is the impact they’re having in an area with otherwise limited exposure to new dance.
“What we’ve realized about the company, especially in this community, is that we’re making work that needs to be made,” says Jacobsen. “What I mean by that is, we try to create a platform to explore ideas and subject material that are socially important to us and also really bring out feeling. It’s work with an important message, but work that can connect with anyone, and so far we’re connecting. That’s the thing. That’s the gig for us.”
AzureVision performs at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish Friday, April 25, and Saturday, April 26, at 7:30 PM. $18/$16 seniors/$10 students.