On Saturday night, the downtown Durham bar Criterion contained a striking number of people who looked somewhat disheveled, wearing loose, sweaty workout clothes. (They never would have gotten in when it was still Whiskey, with its fascist dress code, which is to say, props to Criterion.)
They had just danced in choreographer Renay Aumiller's aerial work, Blood Moon, at the Cordoba Center for the Arts, closing out the debut season from Durham Independent Dance Artists. At the wrap party afterward, they were celebrating a notable uptick in press coverage for local dance and many sold-out venues, indicative of a growing audience.
Though I didn't hear this directly, my companion reported that at least two people at the bar independently speculated that Blood Moon was about menstruation. While the piece was certainly open to interpretation, this seemed bizarre. What I saw was about power, conflict and vulnerability. The harnesses the dancers flew in were used to explore the uncertain line between freedom and limitation, privilege and restraint—dichotomies that could map onto many contexts, including DIDA's effort to build a dance scene by bundling local, independently produced shows into a season, with all the opportunities and constraints that entails.
DIDA was founded by Leah Wilks, Nicola Bullock, Justin Tornow and Lightsey Darst. Between November 2014 and June 2015, they promoted eight performances in untraditional Durham spaces such as The Carrack Modern Art and Motorco Music Hall. Wilks and Tornow presented new works of their own, and Wilks danced in Blood Moon. At Criterion, I sat down with three of the founders (Bullock was out of town) to discuss DIDA's short but significant past and its wide-open future.
The first DIDA season mainly featured the founders and their friends. The next one will be broader, featuring perhaps only two artists from the first season. The organization is less about cultivating a brand than supporting diverse choreographers.
"I like really different stuff than Justin or Lightsey," Wilks says. "Sometimes, maybe something is not our aesthetic, but we believe in the people behind it. The big thing is we have to believe they are ready to produce their own show."
"We have to think that someone is pushing their boundaries a bit, not just making the same work they made last year," Darst adds.
"It's not just emerging artists," Tornow clarifies. "We're also looking at, say, mid-career artists who haven't done anything in a while"—or who want to try something new. "We're not interested in plug-and-play. How can we bring something that's new for audiences every single season?"
"We're like a fringe spread out over a season in that we use all these untraditional spaces," Wilks concludes. "We're interested in bringing in different audiences for each show, whether that's based on age or different areas of Durham, or the work is really theatrical, or it's in a bar. Are there too many things that reach the same audience? In that case, we're not going to do them all."
Of course, DIDA learned a few things in its first year. Two shows, Kristin Taylor's Kindly Rooted and Black Irish's Organ, were booked on the same weekend (the artists choose when to book their shows), and it is believed that it hurt ticket sales for both. "That's the downside of it all being self-produced," Tornow says, "and that's where we should have stepped in."
And one DIDA show, Marie Garlock's Flipping Cancer, was canceled—another pitfall of wrangling autonomous artists. "She's a PhD student and underestimated the workload," Wilks explains. "I saw an early version and it's an incredible one-woman show. Maybe if she ever does produce it, it will pop up at DIDA again."
By increasing the surface area of local indie dance, DIDA made it more accessible for both audiences and the press. Wilks says that the media interest has been invaluable for artists trying to tour, giving them proof of concept via reviews. She recently met with a group that wants to start something like DIDA for writers.
"It was intriguing to have them say, 'The music and dance scenes here are so great;' to hear that other people feel there is a 'dance scene'—I think a lot of that is due to DIDA this year," Wilks says. "We've seen people come to a show because they know somebody in it, or it's at Motorco, and they realize they like modern dance. Then they came to other shows or even got involved, helping us build sets, in a way we couldn't have anticipated."
DIDA is revamping its website for next year, and beginning to look at new support opportunities, stopping short of producing works. "One thing that helped DIDA work is that we didn't form any kind of company," Wilks says. "We've all run companies and nonprofits; we know that's so much work, and we want to prioritize artists. But now that this has taken off as a successful model, there will be some business plan discussion over the year."
Of primary interest is hiring a videographer, because high-quality video is crucial to artists seeking funding for future projects. And DIDA is considering buying a Marley floor that could be loaned to its artists, and paid for with rentals to non-DIDA artists. "We're not a brick and mortar producer, but there are a lot of producing problems in the area we can help address," Tornow says.
Though the founders won't say who is in the next season, after an impromptu whispered conference, they agree to reveal a tidbit. "While we're about supporting local artists, our only requirement is that it's an evening of dance in Durham," says Wilks. "So there will be one international guest artist on the next season, brought in in collaboration with another organization." Shen Wei at Surf Club? (Kidding.)
A clear sign of DIDA's relevance is that half of the choreographers in the American Dance Festival's Here and Now: NC Dances program are DIDA alums, ShaLeigh Comerford and Anna Barker. Still, the organization's focus is on the layer below the institutional, where dancers take over unusual spaces and figure out how to make it work. As such, now that it's got Durham on lock, DIDA wants to strengthen ties with comparably sized independent dance scenes in other states, which could take any number of forms.
"So many organizations become about keeping themselves alive instead of about whether they work for the area," Wilks says, and in this way, DIDA's unincorporated amorphousness is its strength. "Durham is changing so fast that DIDA as it is now may not even be relevant in five years, so we have to stay fluid and change."This article appeared in print with the headline "DIDA Rising."