In a cavernous performance space in Tulane's McWilliams Hall, a man and a woman rise slowly from the floor as electronic bleeps and bloops ring out around them. Two minutes later, when the thumping beat kicks in, the two dancers are in full flight, leaping across the performance space and contorting their bodies into improbably elegant positions that flash past your eye in an instant. They're rehearsing a duet for a dance performance this weekend, and the stakes are high -- the show will introduce New Orleans' newest modern dance troupe, Tsunami Dance Company, to the world.
The premier performance, entitled Fast Forward, is a splashy, multi-media event with eight dance pieces that both incorporate and are punctuated by projected light patterns and animations that the artists call "pixel dances." While Tsunami co-founders Kettye Voltz and Erin Healan understand that audiences can be intimidated by modern dance, they say that everyone from sports enthusiasts to dance aesthetes will be interested in this show.
"I think that any audience could appreciate it because it's so athletic," says Voltz. Both she and Healan have been influenced by ballet in their choreography, but that doesn't make for a sedate performance. In many of the pieces the dancers twirl and tumble in non-stop motion, which may wear out the performers but leaves the observer feeling energized.
Tsunami's arrival is just the latest good news for the blossoming dance community that has drawn native-born dancers back to their hometown from cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago. If New Orleanians haven't yet noticed the phenomenon, Healan says Fast Forward offers a great chance to make up for lost time.
The show is designed to show off the abilities of the dance community at large, says Healan. "We've got an amazing set of talented people in this city, and it's really fascinating to have it under one roof." The evening includes choreography and performances by members of Happensdance, Moving Humans Performance Group, and Big Hair Productions (producer of the annual Confederacy of Dances), all groups that have come to life in the past five years. "With this performance we're trying to show New Orleans that this community is here, and that it's time to take notice," Healan says.
The overlap between New Orleans' various groups is one of the benefits of having only a handful of modern dancers in town, says Voltz. "The community is so small that we're usually working with each other and supporting each other's efforts" with every event, she says. "The dance community has been able to grow steadily and organically."
In the 1980s and early '90s, there weren't many options available for locals interested in contemporary dance, says Voltz. That's why she, like many others, left New Orleans for New York City to pursue her career. Lately, dancers have begun to slowly trickle back into town. Many have both personal and professional reasons for returning -- like Voltz, who wanted to raise her son in New Orleans, and was also ready to contribute to the modern dance scene in the city where she discovered the genre years ago.
Ask any of the dancers what they hope to accomplish now that they're back home, and you'll hear that they all have more or less the same goal in mind. "Total world domination," jokes J Hammons, a dancer in Tsunami's premiere and a founder of the Moving Humans group. Then he laughs and scales back his statement slightly. "New Orleans is an international hub for entertainment, and it used to be an international hub for culture, with world-class ballet companies, opera companies and theater.
"There's absolutely no reason why it can't be a significant player in world culture again."
Before they go about conquering the globe, the dancers need to raise awareness locally. The group expects to capitalize on Tulane University's new bachelor of fine arts program in dance, which Voltz and Healan helped design in separate years. "It's great because it can keep local people here to continue dancing," says Healan, "and it brings new people in from all over the country. And maybe they'll be encouraged to stay in town and contribute to the local scene."
Tsunami also plans to increase its scope beyond the expected annual performance to include workshops and classes. Dancer Nicole Boyd, another local who returned from New York City, is on board for the duration, and has a plan for building the dance audience and community: start early. "We need to try to create pieces that we can use as lecture demonstrations to introduce dance to the kids that are in the school system now," says Boyd. "We have to teach these kids that this is another option, a way to express themselves. That's how you keep it alive."
Looking at the dancers and choreographers involved in Tsunami's premier performance, Voltz says the future looks bright: "There's this whole generation of artists in dance and other media coming back to New Orleans, seeking to make their mark here. It's kind of a reversal of the brain drain."
- Tsunami Dance Company co-founder Erin Healan (right) with dancer Jeanne Jaubert. "We've got an amazing set of talented people in this city, and it's really fascinating to have it under one roof," Healan says.