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Jennifer Hart

Dancing to Montreal

By Jonelle Seitz, Fri., July 22, 2011

<i>Strange Shadows</i> dancers Emily McLaughlin and Michael Burfield
Strange Shadows dancers Emily McLaughlin and Michael Burfield
Photo courtesy of Tony Spielberg

A text from a friend encouraged choreographer and Ballet Austin Academy faculty member Jennifer Hart to apply for the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur International Choreography Competition, to be held Aug. 1 in Quebec, Canada. Two days before the application deadline, Hart sent in a DVD of excerpts from her piece Strange Shadows, performed by Ballet Austin II. Less than one month later, Hart got the call: Out of 38 blind-judged applications, she was chosen as one of three finalists.

"They said that were going to notify people by May 6," says Hart. "They called me May 5, and they said, 'We want you to be one of the three finalists, and you have to tell us right now whether you're going to do this.' And I hadn't asked my [five] dancers, because I didn't want to say to them, 'Hey, I'm applying for this thing, but you know what, I might not get it.' I wanted to be sure I was going to get it before I asked them.

"So I had to say yes without knowing if I'd have the dancers. But I thought, they'd just [performed the piece], I kind of know what their schedules are for the summer, and I'm just going to hope for the best. So I told the guy, 'Yes, I will be there; any which way I can make it happen, I will be there.'"

The festival provides lodging and a stipend for travel expenses, but Hart quickly discovered that flights from ATX to Montreal are not cheap. Even if she wins the modest first prize, she'll barely come out even – hence her Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. But the money's not what it's about, right?

"It's not what it's about," Hart says. "No, gosh no. Because the opportunity to get that kind of recognition is ... you know, you hope that it will lead to something else. It might just be that quarter of an inch on your résumé, or it might be that one person sees your work and likes what you're doing and then commissions you to do a piece. And that's what it's all about: getting more people to see what you do. And the other times I've had things like this happen, they've always led to something else, thank god. The first time I did Ballet Builders [a juried showcase for ballet choreographers held in New York City] I took a pas de deux. And because that pas de deux was recognized by Ballet Builders, a company in Minnesota commissioned that piece. And because that piece was successful, they commissioned me to do a full-length Midsummer Night's Dream. So that's how I have to see it."

Strange Shadows is set to music by Max Richter and Philip Glass. Hart asked the dancers to draw on memories of people no longer in their lives to create gestures, which then became movement material for the piece. As she developed the piece, it "became a little bit more about how difficult it is to connect with people. So there's a real sense of isolation in the piece, but then it has a very hopeful ending. Because in the last two or three minutes, they finally dance in unison, and then there's a sense of sort of helping each other and trying to support each other, knowing there's this sense of isolation."

As an independent ballet choreographer, isolation also informs Hart's professional life. She's been in Austin for four years, but her work has yet to be shown in a professional setting in this city. With the exception of informal workshops and showings, how much work she creates is dictated by the competitions and commissions she gets – in New York, Kansas, Minnesota, and Colorado, but not here. In between, commissions for students, trainees, and apprentices at Ballet Austin have kept her creative engine running, but since "nobody reviews the second company," I'd never heard of her before this summer.

But who cares if I know her? In Quebec, she'll be sharing audiences with dancers and choreographers from Paris; Stockholm, Sweden; Stuttgart, Germany; and elsewhere. "It's the first time I have been recognized internationally for something I've done," says Hart. "And that's been exciting, I have to say."

To view an excerpt from Strange Shadows or contribute to the Kickstarter campaign, visit www.kickstarter.com and search for Jennifer Hart.

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