The Austin Chronicle

Big Range Austin Dance Festival

Getting movement more visible

By Jonelle Seitz, June 6, 2008, Arts

Three years after pulling Austin's contemporary-dance scene out of the gutter with the Hot September Flurries festival, which was commended by both critics and the local dance community, Austin choreographer Ellen Bartel is stirring things up again. This year's festival has a strapping new name, a streamlined schedule, new venues, and a more sophisticated – but still indie – sensibility. We spoke with Bartel – who was dripping with sweat but had no lack of enthusiasm for a discussion of the local dance scene – following a rehearsal of her own piece for Big Range Austin.

Austin Chronicle: Why did you decide to stop producing Hot September Flurries and devote those energies to Big Range?

Ellen Bartel: Hot September Flurries was always just a three-year commitment, and it was time to take it from a grassroots kind of dance festival and make a more visible one. My friends in Houston, who run Suchu Dance, started Big Range there in 2003, so I thought a great way to make our festival more visible was to create a sister festival to Houston's.

What I found out with HSF is that with a monthlong grassroots dance event, it's really hard to maintain the excitement for it. By the end, it's like, "Oh my God, let's put it to rest!" So Big Range is a shorter event. However, I'm casting a wider net as far as audience by putting the shows in different venues and by developing a board of directors and a committee who are helping get those tentacles out there to different communities. But the festival is still about diversifying and showing the range of contemporary dance and about highlighting emerging artists and giving them an opportunity to show professional work.

AC: The Big Range Austin website states that you had 42 choreographers who submitted "amazing, thoughtful" applications for spots in the festival, and you and your committee narrowed the slush-pile down to 28. How did you do it?

EB: Having 42 applications was a big surprise. They trickled in, and two days before the due date, we got piles and piles! It was actually really challenging to go through all of them. There's a focus on young artists, new artists, and diversifying. I wanted to give spots to people who I really felt could explode with this opportunity. But it was difficult, because we had to turn away artists because of time constraints, and we had to make sure none of the pieces were too similar. There was even a group from Dallas who wanted to bring in swinging equipment for their piece, but the theatres we're in can't support that.

AC: What about Austin makes you think it is ready to really support a dance festival of this intensity?

EB: Well, I think there's always been a dance crowd, and Austin's audiences are extremely sophisticated. With [well-known choreographer] Deborah Hay being here in the Seventies and the UT professors and even the people who would go to the Armadillo and things like that, politically, their minds are open, so there's always been a dance audience. And, obviously, in the past three years, Austin has just exploded with young professionals, and these guys should be open to seeing everything that's going on in town. So there's an audience, but you have to keep the arts very central for right now and also very new and fresh. Then, I see all the potential that's out there. Austin could be really amazing. It's a choreographer's town. It's an artist's town. It's a great place to cultivate yourself as an artist.

AC: You're something of a luminary for the Austin dance scene – I mean, you're the one who puts on the festival! – but despite that visibility, you're still often referred to as an "indie" choreographer. What do you say to that?

EB: Oh, I think it's fine, especially because my main goal is not to become a dance administrator or producer. Honest to God, I have no idea how I got to this point. I want to go back to just being a choreographer. But I've created a job for myself, basically.

Big Range Austin Dance Festival runs June 6-15 at various locations.

Program A: Mixed showcase of contemporary dance from established and emerging choreographers from Austin and across the country. Friday-Saturday, June 6-7, 8pm, at Ballet Austin AustinVentures StudioTheater, 501 W Third.

Program B: A half-dozen choreographers have created dance to the same pieces of music. Monday-Wednesday, June 9-11, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater Second Stage, 2803 Manor Rd.

Program C: Music and movement improvisation. Monday-Wednesday, June 9-11, 9:30pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater Second Stage, 2803 Manor Rd.

Program D: Mixed showcase of new contemporary dance, multimedia, and movement-based performance art. Friday-Saturday, June 13-14, 8pm; Sunday, June 15, 6pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo.

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