Dance makers, movers and shakers from across the country will gather in KC June 7 to 10 for the 35th annual Dance/USA Conference. The four-day event connects dance professionals — artists, presenters, artistic and executive directors, service organizations, advocates and arts funders — and highlights the region’s artistic output.
The conference, which moves to a different geographical location around the country each year, is an opportunity for attendees to learn about a specific community and bring that community to national attention. (The conference is not open to the public; see factbox for a related public performance.)Amy Fitterer, executive director of Dance/USA, said, “Kansas City, Missouri, has been on the national radar of the performing arts industry for a while, so when it was time for us to hit the Midwest it was perfect timing and it worked out.”
“It’s an honor to have this in our city,” said Devon Carney, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet, “and a great opportunity for us to show off what we have going on here: a vibrant arts community.”
Jeffrey Bentley, executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, has long advocated to host the conference, ever since the company moved into the facilities at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. “It’s really a dynamic period of time,” he said. “I think the result of [hosting the conference] will be great for the dance community here and as a result of that, it will be great for the community in general.”
For one thing, previous host organizations reported that the conference helped better define the breadth of the dance community and create a better relationship with the flagship ballet company, said Bentley. “I’m hoping that will happen here.”
That’s important to Dance/USA, too, said Fitterer. “We don’t want to enter a community and just work with the large arts institutions. We really want to get on the ground and listen and learn about the rest of the arts community in that city, and in our case, the dance community.”
To be considered as a host city, though, a thriving dance community must already exist. All performing artists are local, featured in site-specific performances throughout the conference. And all the marketing material for the conference uses only local dancers and organizations. “Everything that we use leading up to the conference and following the conference when we talk about the event nationally, features only images of the local dance community,” Fitterer explained. “[That is] one of the reasons we look for a city with a strong local dance community . . . because we want to help raise that visibility.”
“The word is out there about us,” said Carney, “so it’s really the right time to bring the dance world to us!”
Along with seeing performances by area artists, attendees will experience some of the city’s most iconic sights. The conference is organized campus-style, so meetings and events are presented at multiple venues: Kauffman Center, Bolender Center, Union Station, Black Archives of Mid-America, and the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial.
Bentley also heads up the host committee, made up of arts and civic leaders, who, along with on-the-ground organizational duties, fundraise for the conference’s opening night reception, an artistic showcase, and scholarships for local artists to attend the conference.
“A lot of artists in town here are either independent artists or really small companies with small budgets,” said Bentley. “This would be an opportunity for them to interact with people from the rest of the country and talk about common issues . . . not just to learn how other people are addressing issues, but also help tell them how we are addressing issues that they can take back to their communities.”
Bentley reported in February that fundraising was going well, a testament to the civic and individual support for the arts and an acknowledgement of the economic benefit the conference and the arts bring to the community.
The opening night reception, held in the Sprint Festival Plaza in Union Station, includes an awards ceremony. Along with two national awards honoring Cleo Parker Robinson and Gina Gibney, local legend Billie Mahoney (See “Honors,” p. 40) will be awarded the Dance/USA Champion Award. “We were really pleased to be able to recognize her in that way,” Bentley said. “She’s amazing. I don’t think enough people know the rich, robust background that she brings.” At 86, “she’s not doing the baton twirling anymore, but she’s been a tremendous part of Kansas City Ballet and the school here.”
The artistic showcase in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre is modeled on New Dance Partners, a program created by the Johnson County Community College’s Performing Arts Series, and will feature performances from Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company, Owen/Cox Dance Group, and the Kansas City Ballet.
The conference also includes a series of breakout sessions and lectures, where attendees meet in smaller groups to discuss the various issues in the dance world. For Bentley, it’s the opportunity to “trade problem solving . . . or at least problems!”
Along with addressing the ongoing challenges in financing dance and the ever-evolving technological aspects, a primary topic of discussion is the social responsibility of dance. According to Bentley, “dance — and the arts in general — provide a unique tool to assist in building communities that reflect our country in its diversity and, by extension, its values.”
It’s an issue Kansas City Ballet has started to tackle, with a clear view that there is still work to be done. “We’ve made a real effort, especially since Devon came here, to change the make-up of the company itself,” Bentley said. “If you look at the company today . . . it much more represents the people who live in our community as far as color, race and ethnicity.”
Along with the celebrating diversity onstage, KCB strives to be relevant to a diverse audience, available to everyone in the community, and increase diversity in the school, too. “It’s a slow process . . . but you’ve got to make efforts; you’ve got to try. You’ve got to be prepared to not see a lot of immediate results, and yet you’ve got to keep plugging along.”
“This conference, and Dance/USA as a whole, are committed to reflecting the potential of dance to change our world in ways that possibly few other endeavors can,” Bentley said. o
The Dance/USA Annual Conference Host Committee will present a “Kansas City New Dance Partners” performance at 7 p.m. June 8 at the Kauffman Center, featuring the Owen/Cox Dance Group, Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company and the Kansas City Ballet. Tickets cost $35 for adults and $17.50 for children. Purchase tickets online at kcballet.org or by calling the KCB box office, 816.931.8993.