Artist Spotlight: Deb Colley
Deb Colley is all over the place in the Roaring Fork Valley’s art scene. She is in charge of operations, public relations and volunteers for the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities (CCAH); she is the associate director of Dance Initiative and the artistic director of contemporary dance company CoMotion: a conscious movement project; and she teaches modern dance to adults through DanceLAB.
One of her biggest long-term goals, though, is to raise dance to the same level of awareness and appreciation as visual art in Carbondale and in the valley. She is accomplishing this by integrating dance into visual art shows, holding dance performances in nontraditional spaces and bringing dance artists in residence to Carbondale.
Colley shared with the Post Independent how she became involved with dance, how she came to the valley and what dance has to do with the latest exhibit at the Launchpad.
Post Independent: What are some of your earliest memories of dance? When did you start dancing?
Deb Colley: I have two striking memories. I am supposed to be napping, and I know it, so I am being as quiet as possible. The late afternoon is filtering through sides of the blinds that my mom has pulled down so that I will sleep, but I instead I am on top of my bed tip toeing and twirling around pretending to be the ballerinas that I just saw at my friend’s ballet recital. The whole memory is a little blurry, and when I shared it with my mom she didn’t believe it was a real memory as I would have been just 2 years old.
The second memory is locking my bedroom door and turning up the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack on my cassette player as loud as possible and dancing my little heart out. Evidently I would do this for hours — to the “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack specifically. I was probably about 4 or 5 years old and had never even seen the movie, but clearly the music moved me. I begged my mom to let me take ballet classes when I was this age, but based on my personal drive to dance on my own, she didn’t think I needed it. In elementary school I played soccer and baseball (I wasn’t forced, but my mom had to encourage me to engage with the sport by giving me a nickel every time I touched the ball). In second grade she told me I would be taking ballet classes, and I sulked, but ended up becoming an incredibly passionate, focused and serious student. By seventh grade I was taking ballet five days a week and was part of my ballet school’s junior company, which meant evening and weekend rehearsals on top of classes and performances in all sorts of strange venues like school assemblies, shopping malls and outdoor festivals. My mom was a Flamenco dancer, so every now and then I would take interest and participate in classes, but other than that I never really had any interest in other forms of dance until late high school.
PI: Tell me about some of the dance training you’ve had up to this point.
DC: So based on question one, you can see that my formative years were primarily influenced by a strict ballet training. The ballet school I went to, City Ballet in Dallas, is a 66-year-old institution. Even though I didn’t receive any training in modern techniques or jazz, the school had a pretty well-rounded approach to training students. For 11 years I learned all ballet methods — Balanchine, Ceccetti and Vaganova.
When I was a junior in high school, I went to a boarding school in St. Louis, and this type of ballet training basically became completely unaccessible to me. The school I went to had an audition-based dance team, and you needed to be technically proficient in jazz, which technically speaking I could easily adapt to, but you also had to be able to tap, which was completely foreign. I auditioned and made the cut, but only because I looked like I knew exactly what I was doing. It was because of this dance team experience that I became exposed to modern and contemporary dances. Today I still hold some sadness that I wasn’t able to continue my training in ballet, knowing that I lost some of my technique then. But I also see this two-year time period as extremely important to me finding a voice and deepening my passion for movement.
I chose to go to a small liberal arts college, Principia College, in Elsah, Illinois, where I earned a B.A. in environmental science. I also took enough credits to earn a minor in dance, but the theatre and dance department did not officially offer a minor in dance until the following year.
I returned to my ballet training at Principia, studying Vaganova under Mimi McDonald, and also studied Cunningham, Graham, Limon modern technique and African dance under Merle Holloman (a former Alvin Ailey Company Member and professor at the Limon Institute) and studied choreography and composition under Hilary Harper Wilcoxen. Due to an injury I experienced my senior year, I took a four-year break.
In 2008 I began professional training to become a Gyrotonic instructor (Gyrotonic is made up of exercise sequences composed of spiraling, circular movements, which flow together seamlessly to create balance, efficiency, strength and flexibility — several state-of-the-art dance training programs include Gyrotonic in their curriculum), but never completed the training because I became completely absorbed into a small African dance company call Java Jambe that performed around the Tahoe-Reno area.
I decided to get some dance teacher training in 2010 with Anne Green Gilbert, the founder of Brain Compatible Dance Education. And other than that, I don’t really have an impressive training resume. I guess to some degree, I am self-taught. I observe, try things, experiment. I watch a lot of dance — and because dance can be so inaccessible in the valley, I watch a lot of YouTube videos of work by choreographers and companies who capture my imagination.
I started teaching DanceLAB classes in 2011 because no one else was offering modern dance or even creative dance experiences for adults. I wanted that opportunity for myself and figured other people might want it, too. I started choreographing for different things here and there because it seemed like their was an interest, curiosity and a need for it. I also wanted the Carbondale community to have access to these things — not necessarily because I am a proficient choreographer, or maybe even a proficient dancer. Now, between DanceLAB classes, Dance Initiative Programming, The Launchpad dance studios and CoMotion, I have my hands full and have had a lot of learning curves.
PI: How and when did you come to the valley, and how did you get involved in the art scene?
DC: In 2009 I moved to Carbondale from the Tahoe area to serve as an environmental science teaching fellow at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. A year later I found myself in the office of Amy Kimberly, now director of CCAH, proposing a site specific performance project. Instead of doing that project, she talked me into being a part of the Green Is The New Black Fashion Extravaganza. I have been on the directing team since then and joined CCAH as a full staff member in January 2012. Around the same time that I met Amy Kimberly, I also met Peter Gilbert, founder and director of Dance Initiative, at a ballet class, and he immediately got me involved with the beginnings of what is now Dance Initiative. I served on the Advisory Board from 2011 to 2014 and became a part time employee of Dance Initiative in January of this year. As far as CoMotion goes, I had been working with a loose group of dancers on creating choreographic work for a few years, but I wanted to put together longer and more cohesive bodies of work and formed a group that put together our first performance of group work January of 2013. That same group of dancers worked with me to put together two bodies of work, one choreographed by Ashley Arnold, and the other by myself as a part of our Fractures & Divides performance — known by many as the warehouse performance because we did it in the industrial building next to the FedEx distribution center in Carbondale. That was a huge undertaking which I haven’t attempted again at the same level. I realized that I wanted to take a back seat as a choreographer so that I could learn and focus on myself as a dancer.
PI: Tell me about the residency program that Dance Initiative started this year. What role did you play in getting that going?
DC: The residency program was originally the idea of Laura Stover, who is also a Dance Initiative Advisory Board member. It was a way to create more regularity and structure around bringing dance artists into the valley to work and engage with the local community. Peter and I just took the idea and ran with it and were able to put together a great residency program for 2015. We still have a lot of loose ends for the 2016 program, but we can already see how quickly this kind of program can grow. I was significantly involved in the first artist in residence with Patrick Mueller because he was working directly with CoMotion, which meant I played the role of coordinating the residency, dancing and being the rehearsal manager. I won’t get to be as involved as a performing artist with many of them, but I will still get to coordinate artists and participate in whatever programming we plan.
This kind of program is probably one of the most fascinating and perhaps effective forms of outreach, education, exposure, etc., that we can provide for the community. Artists create dances right here (outside of my office door!) in the Open Studio at the Launchpad, where anyone can come watch. And when the artist in residence works with local dancers to create, the impact is exponential, as these dancers then incorporate their experiences from the residency right into their personal work as a dancer, teacher or choreographer. Furthermore, we are supporting working dance artists and creating regional and even national relationships with these artists who will most likely keep in touch and even come back to Carbondale to keep sharing with us. So, in many ways, this is some of the most exciting work I have ever gotten to do with dance.
PI: Tell me a little bit about “Square Footage” and how dance is involved in the exhibit.
DC: The “Square Footage” exhibition was inspired by the Ten Tiny Dances event that is produced by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in Portland every year. In the performance, 10 choreographers present 10 different original dance works on a 4-foot-by-4-foot stage. It is an experiment with confined space that fosters inventive dance and performance art and often invites performers to find new vocabulary to accomplish their work. I love this concept and wanted to see it applied across several disciplines of art. I also was curious about what would happen if you first gave artists a lot of space and then reduced it over time. How would each artist respond? How would a fine artist respond differently than a dance artist?
So I pitched it to CCAH’s Gallery Committee two years ago, and it was accepted into this year’s exhibition schedule. Laura Stover has been curating the five participating fine artists, and I am working with the dancers of CoMotion. Each artist has really had a strong vision of how they wanted to tackle the challenge, and at least four of the five artists are creating completely original installations for the exhibition. CoMotion is working collaboratively to modify an excerpt called Scooter #4 from Patrick Mueller’s artist in residence work, “Damages: Implicit Hazards of Parallel Play.” Scooter #4 in its original form is a sequence of flowing turns, jumps and floor work that is supposed to travel through space, which made it all the more interesting to modify for this project. Right now the dancers and myself are responding to the physical boundary like we are children who were just told where they are and are not allowed to go. We want to push the limits. This involves attempting to do very athletic things right on top of each other or right on the edge of the designated space. We are toying with the idea of letting the audience engage with us by giving them buzzers and buzzing us when we let a body part go beyond the boundary line. We also don’t want to distill or reduce the movement in response to the space. We want to maintain the same dynamic energy as the original movement.
The work is blocked out for the 16-square-foot space, and partially blocked for the 8-square-foot space, but we haven’t tackled the 4-square-foot version yet. I have a feeling it is going to involve getting very vertical in one form or another. The exhibition opens this Friday from 6 to 8 p.m., but CoMotion won’t perform its whole work until after the fine artists have completed their second and final reduction on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 5:30 p.m.
PI: I have a lot of friends who say, “I wish I had taken ballet when I was younger” or something to that effect. I tell them to start dancing anyway, but they feel like it’s too late. What would you say to them, or what advice would you give people like that?
DC: It is not too late. Dance is for anybody. Dance belongs to anyone who has a desire to move, and dance classes are for those who just want to increase their range of motion and find new modes in which to express themselves. I sense the attitude that “it is too late” stems from a belief that dance is about aesthetics and not expression, or about being able to fit perfectly into one individual’s technique that they have developed with their individual body (Graham, Limon, and of course all ballet technique). Because of this, we all place a judgment based on what we believe is dance, what is good dance, based on what are really strict limitations placed on the body. But why not cast those aesthetic judgments aside and enjoy dance? There are a lot of contemporary and postmodern dance movements that engage the subtle body of a mover (I am not talking about competition contemporary dance that you see on “So You Think You Can Dance”). Furthermore, dance brightens the spirit, tones muscles, increases range of motion, is cathartic, provides opportunity for personal and physical exploration and self awareness and, according to Anne Green Gilbert of Brain Compatible Dance Education, is completely fundamental in maintaining a healthy brain! And if that isn’t motivation to go take a ballet class, then go take a Zumba class, a Nia class or a creative modern class (with me and Meagan Shapiro) through DanceLAB! Regardless, dance is a transformational experience for all. And sometimes is just takes time and exposure to discover your dancing body, but it is well worth the effort.
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