Plano — As in any industry, the Dallas dance market has seen its fair share of highs and lows since I moved to the city almost a decade ago. In the two years following the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the fall of 2009, the Dallas dance community saw an impressive rise in the number of professional dance companies in the area, including Avant Chamber Ballet, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Danielle Georgiou Dance Group and Bruce Wood Dance. The dance scene’s next noticeable growth spurt happened around 2014 with the influx of more local dance festivals such as Dallas DanceFest, Rhythm in Fusion Festival and later, Wanderlust Dance Project. Since then the dance market has plateaued, with many dance companies and organizations struggling to find cost effective ways to increase funding and ticket sales without disrupting their bottom lines.
Now, the Dallas dance market is about due for another growth spurt and I believe it will come in the form of fresh talent like Avery-Jai Andrews, who grew up in Dallas but left to pursue dancing elsewhere and is now returning home to start her own dance company. Like many serious dancers here in Dallas, Andrews attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA) before being accepted into New York University’s (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts. After graduating from NYU in 2014, Andrews decided to move overseas where she danced professionally with artists in Italy, Israel and Germany.
In 2016 Andrews made the decision to come home to Dallas and start making her own work, which is how her dance company, Don’t Ask Why, came into existence. The company’s first performance is this Friday, with performances at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., at the White Theater, part of the state-of-the-art facilities that make up the new Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano. Titled GESTALT, which is a German word meaning an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts, the 45-minute piece features Italian-based contemporary dance company Keyhole Dance Project.
TheaterJones talked to Avery-Jai Andrews to find out more about her European contemporary dance style, the lessons she has learned abroad and what viewers can expect to see at Don’t Ask Why Dance Company’s premiere performance.
TheaterJones: What made you decide to come back to Dallas to form your own dance company?
Avery-Jai Andrews: Dallas is such a vibrant city, and I know for me and my dance friends when we come back home there is always something new happening in the dance community, and I think that is what’s pulling a lot us [professional dancers] back to the area. With that said, I have spent the last three years traveling between New York, Europe and Israel, and I finally had enough of that and wanted to come back to Dallas with the intention of settling down and creating my own work. So, in October 2016 I made the decision to start changing things so I could start to create my own non-profit.
How has your perception of the dance scene in Dallas changed since leaving for college in the fall of 2010?
I remember we moved into the new section of Booker T. at the end of my Freshman year, so I really got to experience the changes happening in Arts District first hand, but by the end of my Senior year I was ready to leave home and experience being a college kid. I feel like when I left that dance wasn’t something that I wanted to do here in Dallas. I thought that I needed to be in New York in order to make it as a professional dancer. My mind wasn’t opened up to the idea until I left America and I started seeing what was happening dance-wise in other countries and as my own voice started to become more clear. During this period of time I started to have more desire to share and to create, and I think that’s when the urge to find a place to settle down and start choreographing began to take over.
I mean when I went to college I had no idea that I really wanted to create and start my own company. I was just ready to be a dancer, join a company and to be living that New York fast-paced life. Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love New York City, but I have started to realize that you are limited there. Everything is very expensive there, so when it comes to creating your own work in the city, you know outside of working to make money to pay your rent, you also have to find the free time and the money to be creative and I felt that would be more possible here. I just feel like Dallas is asking and wanting the young, different voices too. They want different flavors and there are a lot of people who want to support the arts. It’s so great to go to shows here and see an audience that is excited to be there and I feel like sometimes you miss that in the big cities where there are always dance performances happening.
Why did you chose to pursue a dancing career abroad after graduating from college?
I was blessed to study abroad over the summer to Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance in Austria and that was my first taste of dance outside of the U.S. and more specifically the European contemporary style. It showed me a whole other world. I mean, just the way they use the space, sets, lights and costumes; it’s such an integrated feel that I think sometimes I’m missing out when I’m here in America. The experience opened my mind up to all that dance can be. That dance can be something more than I already see and so, when I got back and entered my last year of school I knew that I wanted to go back and felt like I needed to immerse myself in dance outside of the U.S. So, as soon as I graduated I ended up going to Israel to Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company’s Dance Journey program for five months.
Even with all the conflict that was happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis during this time, I still had a great time and the program helped me acknowledge that I have the tools and skills to be an artist and that I could go forth and be a professional. And because it is an international program I got to meet so many wonderful people from around the world and it is actually where I met Matteo Zamperin from Italy who started Keyhole Dance Project. I also met Elise Cleaver there, and I was in Hamburg with her in 2015 creating a new work. So, I still kept in contact with a lot of those people and that has afforded me the opportunity to travel more just from that program. The Dance Journey program really set me up to continue this deep desire of whatever was brewing in me to get out and explore the world. And just being in other cultures and living there, not just visiting or being there a week or two, but living in other countries has really expanded me as a human and had me questioning a lot about who I want to be and how I want to live my life.
As of today, how would you classify your movement style to audiences?
I am definitely not classical and I wouldn’t even say modern because I even see modern as a bit more classical so, I would say I am within the realm of European contemporary dance. What I like to focus on as a creative is, the dancers have to be physical and dynamic with their bodies but yet still relate to the people who are watching them. How can we still show that we are human, but then also be more expressive within our own bodies? So, I definitely put in those lines and we have big movements and we take the space and travel, but then I want us to be able to transition into just being human and being a body at the same time.
Can you explain Friday evening’s program to me?
The program is 45 minutes long with no intermission and I would describe it more as a performance experience. GESTALT is a collaboration with my friend Matteo and his Italian-based company, Keyhole Dance Project. He and I formed a good rapport through Kibbutz’s Dance Journey program and I knew that I wanted that again so, when I decided to produce my own show as a premiere for Don’t Ask Why I immediately reached out to him.
The theme of the show comes from its title GESTALT, which basically means the perceived whole is more important than the individual pieces that make up the whole image. That has served up very well in the creation process because Matteo hasn’t been here this whole time and just being a start-up we have been rehearsing here and there and so we were literally creating in pieces. And some of the material we worked with had been planned a year ago so most of our collaboration came into play when we started putting all these pieces of movement together. GESTALT is a very dynamic and layered piece and I’m personally enjoying that each of the seven performers is having an experience of their own throughout the work.
What is the inspiration behind the name Don’t Ask Why?
Well, when my mom came to my shows she would tell me ‘that was great, but why did that happen?’ and I would say, ‘Mom you don’t need to fully understand what I was thinking. I just want you to experience the movement.’ In my mind, as long as the show made her feel something then the job was done. I just want people to feel something when they see my work and that’s one of the reasons behind the name. The other is more personal and goes back to when my best friend Micaela White passed away right before I went to college and a year later I was in another scary situation with a close friend who was in the hospital and these experiences made me started questioning why me? Why am I in this place? At that time this felt like a very dangerous place psychologically to be in and so, I told myself that I was going to stop asking why and just keep moving forward. I have taken this philosophy with me since then and it has been a very productive thing for me to live by.
Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com