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DITA takes modern dance to the masses at ArtPrize

Amy Wilson, artistic director.

It’s the unlikeliest of scenes: In the building that once housed the Grand Rapids Public Museum at 54 Jefferson, there is a large white ramp nearly filling one of the empty exhibit rooms. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a group of children takes turns jumping, dancing, and rolling on the ramp under a dancer's direction as haunting music from “The Shining” plays quietly in the background.
What is this? It’s DITA’s modern dance installation at SiTE:LAB for ArtPrize 2013, and it’s bringing contemporary dance to the masses. The Grand Rapids-based dance organization enters the event this year with its ongoing live performance, “Angle of Repose,” and with community workshops that allow the public to experience movement in a new and different way.
Both the venue and the performance have been named as finalists for the Juried Short List in their respective categories, proving that there’s a place for risky contemporary art at an event that traditionally garners attention for the biggest, the popular, and the most mainstream entries. And whether or not “Angle of Repose” or SiTE:LAB win any prize money, they’ve already achieved their goal of exposing attendees to challenging art.
“We want to foster appreciation for dance and movement as an art form, and ArtPrize is just one way to do it,” says DITA artistic director Amy Wilson, who founded the dance organization five years ago. “Wealthy Theatre, where we usually perform twice a year, has about 400 seats, and we usually sell out. Here, it’s going to be more like 30,000 people who have the opportunity to see us and see what we’re about.”
What they’re “about,” in part, is education, which has always been a huge component of DITA’s mission. Year-round, the group hosts master classes with guest instructors and typically produces two or three live, one-night performances per year. But the ongoing workshops for all ages and ability levels during ArtPrize allow the group to be part of a larger community conversation about art and understanding.
Wilson, who also teaches at Grand Valley State University, knows that not everyone “gets” modern dance; it’s a conversation she has with her classes and with ArtPrize viewers. “I tell them to experience art – and dance – with an open mind. If you’re going to say, ‘I don’t get it’ and walk away, then you’re not investing in it at all. You don’t have to love it. You could totally hate it, but you should be able to explain why.”
SiTE:LAB co-founder and curator Paul Amenta says DITA’s performance fits into the venue for just this reason. “All the work in our show is challenging to the amateur art viewer. Maybe this is the first time they’ve seen something like this. My goal isn’t to make it easy on them; my goal is to challenge people. If you figure something out the first time – a movie, a novel – you don’t need to see it again. The things that draw you back and make you think are the good stuff,” says Amenta.
It’s a perspective Amenta comes by naturally. “I didn’t see my first art exhibit until I was a junior in college. The beauty of ArtPrize is it draws in all these people who don’t typically do this stuff. They’ve having an experience, and it might not affect them immediately, but they’re having an experience they couldn’t otherwise have.”
Amenta, who attended GVSU and returned to Grand Rapids in 2006 after living in New York and Seattle, says “Angle of Repose” joins all the entries at SiTE:LAB in trying to be a direct counterpoint to the mainstream.
“It’s about architectural transformation,” he says of the venue, which is also exhibiting over 30 proposals for the long-term use of the building at 54 Jefferson. “I asked DITA if they could transform the space into a performance space. They began to work with Lott3Metz to design, engineer, and build the ramp structure, which I think is a brilliant use of the space. And the way they’re performing on it is a stunning use of the incline plane.”
Exhibiting over an extended time period at ArtPrize this year has allowed DITA to push the boundaries a little more in their own work, too. Choreographer and dancer Hannah Sullivan Ferianc says, “We’ve been riskier with our decisions here. Some of those have paid off, and some of them we’ve edited.”
Wilson agrees, though she says the process can feel scary. “We really didn’t know what we were doing at first. We took away everything familiar. But once the ramp was built, we started to play on it, and we knew it was too fun not to share.”
The brave and happy group of children at Wilson’s Saturday afternoon workshop certainly embrace the ramp, as children are inclined to do. But even adults who wander into Ferianc’s later workshop are surprisingly willing to take off their shoes and belts and take turns sliding, tumbling, and leaping on the ramp.
ArtPrize attendees who walk through the reptile-green-floored outer space to take a peek at “Angle of Repose” during a live performance may encounter a variety of pieces in progress. No two performances are exactly alike, since the set list is decided just a few minutes before the dance begins each time, but dancers will likely be interacting with one another on the 30-foot ramp and using a custom-sewn red dress made of parachute fabric as they play with gravity and space. It’s all part of creating art that’s far more unexpected, bold, and challenging than many other ArtPrize entries.
“That’s why we keep doing what we do,” says Wilson. “To be part of the conversation. We’re just trying to stay relevant, every day.” And she smiles as another brave workshop participant experiences the ramp by sliding down to the bottom with a laugh.

Stephanie Doublestein is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird
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