(This is the first in a series of stories examining Austin’s venue crisis as artists struggle with the lack of affordable space and disappearing venues.)
Kathy Dunn Hamrick takes a photo of the bright blue warehouse.
“I need to show my audience where they’ll be going since they’ve never been here before,” the choreographer says.
The bright blue building houses KC Grey Home, a furniture showroom and warehouse. Just off South Congress Avenue, just south of St. Edward’s University, the business occupies one of many light industrial buildings — a neighborhood of sorts.
And it’s the venue for “Parade,” the latest production by Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, which will run Nov. 30-Dec. 3.
Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company is one of the longest-standing and much-lauded contemporary dance companies in Austin. The company is in its 18th season, remarkable longevity for an arts organization with a lean annual budget of $75,000.
Hamrick is an impressively prolific choreographer, typically creating two full-length new dances each season. She is known for her expressive and athletic movement vocabulary — intricate layered choreography for an ensemble of dancers, not favored soloists. Dancers stay with the company for years. Often Hamrick collaborates with alt-classical composers, commissioning a new musical score for danceworks that frequently include live musical accompaniment.
Three years ago, KDH Dance ambitiously created the Austin Dance Festival, an annual showcase of modern dance companies and independent choreographers from around the country.
And yet despite its legacy and roster of accomplishments, KDH Dance Company — like dozens of other Austin arts organizations — is caught in the vise-grip of the city’s arts venue crisis.
For years KDH Dance performed at Salvage Vanguard Theater in East Austin. But that venue shuttered in mid-2016 after new owners demanded a four-fold rent increase. Hamrick’s company has also rented the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theater and Ballet Austin’s AustinVenture Studio Theater, two very in-demand and not inexpensive venues. And as venues like SVT have disappeared, demand for Rollins and AustinVentures has skyrocketed.
With increasingly disappearing options, KDH Dance Company’s next production, “Parade,” will be performed in the warehouse space behind KC Grey’s furniture showroom.
“I feel incredibly lucky to have found this space and if it weren’t for the generosity of KC Grey, I don’t know where we’d be,” Hamrick says.
“Parade” isn’t the first arts event the family-owned furniture company has welcomed into its 20,000-square-foot space. In September, arts organization Big Medium staged its “Texas Biennial” exhibit there, building temporary walls to create galleries for the sprawling show.
For “Parade” technical director and lighting designer Stephen Pruitt will literally build a theater within a warehouse. After just four performances, he’ll dissemble it.
While an unconventional locale may not have the pricey rental fees of a traditional theater spaces like Rollins and Ballet Austin’s AV, the costs of building a temporary performance makes building a pop-up typically the same. For dance companies in particular, requirements complicate.
“i DO NOT KNOW WHERE I’M GOING TO PERFORM SIX MONTHS FROM NOW.”
To prevent injury, ballet and modern dancers need an appropriate floor to perform on, one that provides support and also has a non-slip surface. Pruitt and his crew will lay three types of material down to make an appropriate floor: first thin foam padding, then board and then specialized slip-resistant vinyl.
A platform will be built for the musicians. And three levels of risers will be built to ho will accommodate 60 chairs — less than the 100 seats that Salvage Vanguard offered or the 200-plus seats at the Rollins Theater and at AustinVentures. And of course, less seats mean less ticket revenue.
There are restrooms at KC Grey, and the owners have graciously invited the audience to lounge on the furniture in the showroom before each performance. (Delightfully, during the opening for the Texas Biennial, every showroom arrangement of couches and armchairs was occupied with celebrating attendees.)
But there’s no separate dressing room for performers. Says Hamrick: “The dancers will have to do hair and makeup at home.”
• • •
A parade, Hamrick points out, can be joyous — a community salute, a celebratory remembrance or a ticker-tape spectacle. A parade is an intriguing form of organized group movement ripe for choreographic interpretation. But parades can be ominous, too, a demonstration of military or political might intended to intimidate.
Hamrick insists the dance transcends political particulars, but images from the past year percolated in her mind as she created “Parade.” The presidential inauguration followed the next day by protest marches world-wide. Also, the shock of hyper-stylized North Korean military parades and the horror of torch-carrying white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Standing in the empty warehouse space, Hamrick says: “I started thinking about that fine line between peace and conflict, how just one small thing, one action or word, can flip a situation so completely.”
Hamrick’s choreographic style combines complex micro-movements with large sweeping gestures, intricate ensemble work with solo moments of uncommon grace. In “Parade” there are shades of a drumline and an elaborate Busby Berekely-esque wheel rotation of dancers. But Hamrick says the movement is never wholly celebratory or absolutely dark.
“I created ambiguous images. You’ll notice jolting, quaking, movement on the verge of erupting, then a moment of calm.”
Hamrick created the one-hour “Parade” for nine dancers. And while work on it began before she secured the KC Grey space, Hamrick is leveraging the long narrow warehouse to its advantage. The audience will be seated at one end of the long space with dancers moving straight toward them. The choreography is motion-filled, the dancers often in formation, moving continuously in a highly orchestrated style.
Composer Drew Silverman wrote a score for solo cello, pre-recorded tracks, a synthesizer and a slew of percussion instruments. A dark melodic riff on “I Love a Parade” bubbles up through the score. Silverman and the cellist perform live.
Says Hamrick: “The whole piece is a mix of light and dark.”
• • •
In March Hamrick will again stage the Austin Dance Festival at Ballet Austin’s AV theater. And as she has for years, she’s planned a June dance concert, yet another entirely new piece of work. But there’s a critical problem.
“I literally do not know where I’m going to perform six months from now,” Hamrick says.
That uncertainty creates a domino effect in the survival of arts groups like KDH Dance. The search for space consumes the time and energy of Hamrick and her board of trustees. Production planning is thwarted. “I can’t offer contracts to my dancers, I can’t tell my audience at this show where I’ll be at the next one.”
The logistical and administrative nightmares of having no available performance space extend to the creative side of dancemaking too.
“I like to control the context of my work, and where it’s performed very much informs the particular dance I make. So if I don’t know what type of space you’ll perform in, it’s really hard to create.”
She sighs. “My next work will get made. I can’t not create new work, but… ”
Hamrick scans the parking lot outside the blue furniture space. “Before I (head home) I think I’m going to drive around and see what the parking situation is so I can tell my audience what to expect.”
“There’s that (arts management adage) that says you have to make it easy for your audience to find you and follow you. But if you’re always in some place totally new that gets harder and you risk losing your audience altogether.”
In June, KDH Dance performed at the Barnstorm Dance Festival in Houston. The festival was held at the Midtown Arts & Theater Center, MATCH, a four-venue non-profit facility that rents at very affordable rates.
“Houston found a way to make affordable performances spaces. Austin should be able to do the same. Why can’t it?” says Hamrick. “Something has to change here and change soon. The situation just can’t go on.”