How does someone become the matriarch of an art form for an entire state? This is the question raised by this year’s winner of the Herb Lockwood Prize.
The answer begins in the 1980s, in an upstairs studio on Main Street in Burlington. Dancers of all ages and abilities came there to learn movement. Their teacher treated dance as a means of conveying what it is to be human, a way for an individual dancer to express emotions that anyone can recognize and feel.
She soon became known for incredible focus. For having eyes that light up at a good idea. For being raw and direct, and for having a great belly laugh. She also developed two traits that are essential for success in dance: First, determination. This show will come together. The performance will come off. And second, savvy. Uniquely among Vermont dance producers, she pays her dancers for rehearsal time. She is repaid, of course, in devotion.
This combination of attributes soon outgrew Main Street, to become Cradle to Grave Arts. Piece by piece, that company expanded notions about where dance can be performed. How about a bus depot? Or an abandoned building? How about a show that is 54 hours long?
The Mill Project considered the lives of textile workers in Vermont’s past. The Rose Street Bakery Project was a ten-hour performance in an abandoned building. The Waterfront Project involved a performance on the first Sunday of the month all year, and in all weather. The next year brought Spirit of Place, a two-person dance performed in silence, and the Hay Project, down at Shelburne Farms. Next, the Five Sisters area of Burlington became the stage for the Neighborhood Project. People were, quite literally, dancing in the streets.
Time after time she found new places to perform, and new ways to introduce people to this art form. The role of dancers, by expressing history and culture and emotion, was being enlarged.
She produced a show in Burlington’s Bus Barn, where buses had been maintained for decades. The musical score was a reading of the bus workers’ names. The show was self-directed: The audience would drift through the space to discover a performance around one corner or in front of one old window.
In 2012, she attained new levels in Dear Pina, a tribute to the groundbreaking German choreographer Pina Bausch. This idea required 28 dancers. The venue was equally ambitious: the Breeding Barn at Shelburne Farms. Imagine a stage fifty times larger than the one at the Flynn. Yet it was moving and engaging from the first moment to the last. Dance in Vermont had reached a new scale.
Almost inversely, her next work, Threads and Thresholds, was performed inside the snug Kent Museum in Calais. In that immersive show, dancer and audience were close to one another, breathing the same air. A thump from another room meant dance was going on in there too.
By then she had taught hundreds of dancers. Any place could serve as the set. Any sound, or even silence, could accompany the choreography. The range of ages and body types grew. People with different physical abilities joined the cast. Always, at the center, there was human movement, exacting and emotive. Technique was not some cold mechanism for making shapes with bodies. Technique was a tool of expression. Technique was a way to connect.
Meanwhile she nurtured other choreographers and dance producers. She attended shows by new groups, and she’d rush backstage after the show to bestow praise and fierce hugs. She has caused all boats to rise in Vermont’s dance harbor.
And now she is embarked on her greatest production yet: “The Quarry Project.” This is a performance within the walls, and on the water, of the Barre Granite Quarry. Dancers will float, musicians likewise, while the unique acoustics and reflections of light on the water, create a stage like no other. This show could only happen in Vermont. “The Quarry Project” requires the involvement of dancers, musicians, companies, sponsors, and eventually an audience that will see something rare, ephemeral, and unforgettable.
The Herb Lockwood prize is awarded to people who not only create their art at the highest artistic level, but have also nurtured the state’s other practitioners of that art. The prize has gone to an actor, a bookmaker, a filmmaker, a novelist, a musician, and the founder of a puppet theater company. Dance is different. It’s an especially hard art form, punishing on the body, difficult to finance, hard to stage. Yet this year’s winner has bested these challenges over and over. Most incredibly, her greatest work is still ahead.
Please join us in congratulating the winner of the 2020 Herb Lockwood Prize, the state’s matriarch of dance, Hannah Dennison.