Bringing dance to the community

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Wander & Wonder III (Photo by Annette Dragon)

Biodance, a contemporary repertory dance company, combines life with dance through site-specific work that explores the human condition, relationships, and social, political and environmental issues. 

Under Missy Pfohl Smith, artistic director and choreographer, Biodance spawned from a love for collaboration between dancers and other artists. Smith, who also directs the University of Rochester’s Program of Dance and Movement, founded the company in 2002 while living in the New York City area. She moved to Rochester in 2004 and re-established Biodance in 2006.

Since then, the company has partnered with composers, musicians, media artists, visual artists and even a sculptor. Artists and guest choreographers from New York City to Wisconsin have created work for and with Biodance. 

Managed by Smith and an administrative associate through the Eastman School of Music’s Institute for Music Leadership, Biodance employs six to 10 part-time dancers each year, in addition to working with artists from all disciplines. The company typically creates two to three new pieces a year that vary in scope, ranging from full-length shows to collaborations that have been years in the making.

Collaborators have included the 12-member Dave Rivello Ensemble, the Mount Hope World Singers, the Joseph Avenue Arts and Culture Alliance, Eastman’s Ossia New Music ensemble and Cordancia Chamber Orchestra.

The company has pushed the envelope when it comes to performance spaces since adapting to outdoor and filmed performances in response to the pandemic. But Smith’s interest in doing site-specific work dates to 2013 with an opportunity to perform at the Rochester Museum and Science Center’s Strasenburgh Planetarium.

“Our piece at the planetarium began a whole new way of looking at where dance and arts could take place, and how a setting engages dances in different ways,” Smith says. “You’re not only looking at dance, but you’re noticing areas of the community that might have passed by before. It is a way to bring your awareness to multiple things at the same time.”

Biodance brought its site-specific work to its most recent performance, last month at the Rochester Fringe Festival. The piece, Wander and Wonder III, was a collaboration with Ossia New Music featuring music composed by Logan Barrett. The performance was influenced by audience participation.

Audience members wandered Rochester Museum and Science Center  grounds, following the dance artists. Both the artists and the audience were invited to download an app that captured and amplified the sound on location. This allowed Biodance to perform to music alongside sounds present within the outdoor garden space, including birds chirping and planes flying overhead. 

Not only did Smith see this work as a way to be in nature, but she also saw it as a way to engage the community—an important aspect in keeping the arts accessible.

“I think dance and the arts should be accessible. That can mean doing free or outdoor shows rather than always being in large theaters. All of these performances have their rewards,” says Smith. “Of course, it’s fun performing in a gorgeous theater, but it’s also fun performing in a senior center where the audience is clapping every five minutes and is really excited about what you’re doing. I don’t think one is better than the other.”

Through its innovative works and community engagement, Biodance has been embraced by the community it serves, Smith observes.

“When you start out, you’re playing to your friends and family. We’ve graduated from that stage, and now we have audiences who we are meeting for the first time in the lobby after shows, and they are coming back,” she says. “Once you get into the space where you have strangers coming to see your work and then coming back, you feel like ‘Yeah we’re doing this right!’ I do feel really grateful that we appeal to the people in our own community.”

Smith says Biodance will keep contributing as Rochester evolves..

“There is so much happening in our own community and there is so much need in our own community,” says Smith. “It feels satisfying to be doing the work at home. We love doing what we’re doing, and we’re going to keep doing it.”

Evan Coleman is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and a recent University of Rochester graduate. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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