When you think of Nashville, country music and Southern cuisine come to mind. Contemporary dance? Not so much. But if Juilliard-trained dancer and choreographer Banning Bouldin has anything to say, the answer will soon be "Absolutely."
With life in dance hubs like New York becoming increasingly challenging and expensive, successful performers like Bouldin are relocating in search of more space to breathe as artists. Once there, they are finding ways to re-envision the energy and inspiration of the artistic communities they had enjoyed in the cities they left behind.
Since the Nashville native returned home in 2010, she has founded New Dialect, a nonprofit dance organization that provides training in modern and contemporary movement along with a professional performance collective of dancers who work on a 34-week contract.
"Right now, a large part of the population in the U.S. thinks the National Endowment for the Arts isn't necessary," Bouldin says. "That's because art isn't reaching people. We have a responsibility to take art to rural areas and smaller cities. We must dare to blaze a trail."
The Need to Leave Home
Early in her training with the School of Nashville Ballet, Bouldin noticed she preferred Giselle's mad scene over princess poses. So she auditioned for the first-ever summer program at The Juilliard School to immerse herself in contemporary work, and a year later, she was accepted into their BFA early admission program, completing her senior year of high school and freshman year of college at the same time.
After graduation, she joined Hubbard Street 2 and moved to Chicago. But it wasn't long before the Big Apple called her back to work with Jacqulyn Buglisi, Lar Lubovitch and Aszure Barton. "I couldn't get NYC out of my system," she says.
A couple years later she left for Europe, where she joined Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm. Paris was her next stop. "In that five-year period when I was not as tunnel vision about my career, I opened up," she says. "It took space and time for me to grow as a teacher and choreographer."
Eventually, it became clear: She wanted to go home. "I spent so much time going everywhere else because I had to leave to get my education and career," she says. "I had been devoting myself to it for more than a decade. I felt satisfied with my experiences. I wanted to prioritize family, relationships and giving back."
A Respectful Return
Once home, the idea for New Dialect was born, and she took care to become familiar with the local dance scene and its needs. Along with teaching privately, she served on the faculty of Vanderbilt University Dance Program and the School of Nashville Ballet, where she developed the contemporary technique and improvisation curriculum.
"In the three years I taught at Vanderbilt and Nashville Ballet, I realized there were many talented dancers here, who through lack of exposure, had little knowledge of choreographers or companies devoted to contemporary performance," she says. "In order to give them the opportunity to dive deeper into these new and different approaches, I would need to create an infrastructure that would allow me to bring guest artists to Nashville."
She connected with the Arts and Business Council of Greater Nashville for legal and business assistance to build the organizational structure for New Dialect. She learned about filing for nonprofit status, annual reports and how to incorporate, all spelled out in a 200-page packet.
Filling an Educational Vacuum
In April 2013, Bouldin created open community classes where teachers and students could explore and refine a variety of work. Since then she has added classes in various Nashville locations, offering diverse styles that range from ballet for contemporary dancers to contact improvisation and Feldenkrais.
"The emphasis is on the evolution of the contemporary artform," she says. "While we value the preservation of techniques that are codified (ballet, Graham, Cunningham, Limón), our practice is to use these, other techniques and our own improvisations, as a launching pad to uncover new territory."
Twice a year, she hosts an intensive for pre-professional and professional dancers that draws performers from across North America and Europe to participate in a research lab, working with prominent guest contemporary dance artists such as Yin Yue, Laurel Jenkins and Erin Law.
Another New Dialect project close to Bouldin's heart is Girl Power Camp, a weeklong summer intensive for young women that cultivates leadership and collaborative problem solving. "Historically, dance education praises dancers, especially young women, who take direction unquestioningly," says Bouldin. "So I want to facilitate an environment where young girls are in dialogue, choreographing and practicing. It is essential for the future of the artform. We practice how we can use our voices, even making proposals verbally."
Success Means Paying a Living Wage
In 2014, New Dialect added a professional company. Now, eight dancers, two apprentices and a rehearsal assistant work year-round. Since its first show, the company has been commissioned, presented and self-produced in theaters, galleries and outdoor spaces, as well as screened films throughout Nashville.
All told, Bouldin's seen her work pay off, not only in excitement surrounding the institution, but also in terms of people who want to volunteer and serve on the board. Currently there are nine members who provide everything from legal, fundraising and marketing assistance to physical therapy services. Two part-time staffers manage data and registration.
Administrative work is shared between Bouldin and her husband, a nonprofit development professional, who is one of the reasons Bouldin chose to live in Nashville. (The two met in 1997 and married in 2011.) He serves as development director for New Dialect, designs marketing materials, maintains the website and creates video trailers, while she programs classes, residencies and performances, and books tours and handles bookkeeping and communications.
"I had no idea about grant applications, development or even just cold-meeting individuals," says Bouldin, when asked if she finds any of this challenging. "You have to be able to talk about the project right out of the gate. It sounds simple, but it was the most uncomfortable aspect for me."
"Sometimes it feels like tilling concrete, not just to build the organization, but to also generate energy behind the arts movement in practical terms," she adds. "Our practice and the works we create and present are very different from anything else coming out of Nashville right now. There's no precedent. There have been other small dance projects over the last 20 years, but other than Nashville Ballet, very few of these companies had the infrastructure in place to offer their collaborators full-time work and a living wage."
Bouldin attributes much of her success to finding creative solutions, including collaborating with other local organizations. A partnership with Metro Parks and Recreation Dance Division, for example, gives New Dialect free rehearsal space in exchange for developing curriculum and teaching modern and contemporary classes. "Win-win," Bouldin says. "It won't happen if we don't come together to make courageous decisions. This is how it happens."