The Austin Chronicle

ACC Dance Department: The joys of discovery

By Robert Faires, May 2, 2008, Arts

"I'm always surprised by what people create when they are given the opportunity to produce in a positive and supportive environment."

That's local choreographer Darla Johnson (Johnson/Long Dance Company, Big State Productions) reflecting on her work with students in the Austin Community College Dance Department, where she's been working for several years to help develop the dance-makers of the next generation. ACC's program has long been under the radar in the Austin arts scene but is noteworthy for its faculty of strong local choreographers (Johnson, José Luis Bustamante, Kathy Dunn Hamrick, and Allison Orr, among others), the regular opportunities it offers students to make and present work (such as this weekend's Spring Choreographers' Showcase), and that supportive environment to which Johnson was referring.

"We encourage our students to bring all of themselves into the process," Johnson says. "Other cultural dance forms they've studied, other artistic pursuits, any kind of movement vocabulary that they can spring from and create with. The goal is to nurture each individual's voice and to help them discover their own unique style and dance vocabulary."

Forklift Danceworks Artistic Director Allison Orr, who studied with Johnson herself, has been leading the Choreography II class, where many of the 2008 Spring Choreographers' Showcase dances were developed. In the process, she's found herself taken by "the students' abilities to solve 'problems' in creative ways – for example, how to communicate when you are finished with a dance phrase and another dancer needs to begin when that dancer can't see you. Or how to get the whole group to start on a particular music cue when some students can't hear the music. That is what is interesting about working together, where we have issues we need to solve in creative ways. I also asked this group to create duets based on personal writing that they did in class, and I have loved seeing their unique voices and personalities come out in the choreography. All in all, what I most enjoy is seeing who they are come through in the dance. That is really a gift."

Students Tara Baker, Leah Crockett, Leigh Gaymon-Jones, Christina Houle, Sarah Leung, Victoria Pierce, Mysti Pride, Kaly Vaughn, and Sarah Wendtlandt will be featured in the program, which also includes new dances by Johnson and Orr, both inspired by their work with students. Orr's piece is rooted in the duets created by her students from the writing assignment she gave them. Her 13 dancers include three students who are deaf, four who are blind or visually impaired, and seven who are not blind or deaf, and the movement draws on American Sign Language and the use of white canes. How Many ... Circular Ruins was inspired by one of Johnson's students who spent three years in Iraq and is preparing to return for another tour.

According to Johnson, working with younger artists feeds her artistically as much as it does them. "To guide someone as they discover their own choreographic voice and be a part of that process is exciting," she says, "and allows room for my own discoveries."

The ACC Dance Department 2008 Spring Choreographers' Showcase, featuring work by students from the Choreography II class, runs May 2-3, Friday and Saturday, 8pm, at the Mainstage Theater, Rio Grande Campus, 1212 Rio Grande.

The ACC Dance Department 2008 Spring Informance, featuring work by students from the Choreography I class, takes place Tuesday, May 6, 7pm, in the Rio Grande Campus Dance Studio, Room 130, Rio Grande Campus, 1212 Rio Grande. For more information, call 223-3384 or visit

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