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When most people think about cities with vibrant professional dance scenes, they often think about New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, despite its established community of artists and arts advocates and its status as home to the American Dance Festival for the past 37 years, Durham, North Carolina, is not often one of the first cities to come to mind. Dance Professionals Stephanie Blackmon Woodbeck and William (Bill) Commander aim to strengthen that synapse with the launch of Tobacco Road Dance Productions (TRDP).

Stephanie and Bill began working together in February 2014 after officially filing as an LLC in November 2013.Their first venture as a company has been curating and producing a concert of five short (read: not evening-length) works choreographed and performed by local artists. Tobacco Road Dance Productions: In Concert will debut Friday, January 30th at 8:00 PM at Common Ground Theatre, and will have an encore performance Saturday, January 31st at the same time.

The importance of a show like this, Stephanie explained, is that it recognizes the value in works that are not yet evening-length, which may come to TRDP’s application process in varying stages of completion. By giving choreographers a platform for guaranteed performance, this type of show encourages younger or less established choreographers to submit work; it also gives established choreographers the opportunity to experiment with new concepts and creative choices without dedicating significant amounts of time to producing an independent show.

Diego Carrasco Dance

Diego Carrasco Dance. Photo credit: Stephanie Blackmon Woodbeck.

“Most of the shared shows that currently exist in this area are [performance] by invitation only,” Stephanie explained, “so audiences end up seeing the same work over and over again, and often see work by the same choreographers…This is a much bigger problem for people who are new to the area or who are just young. It is hard for a new choreographer to get known.”

Stephanie noted that though the American Dance Festival now presents local artists, works submitted for performance there must have already been formally performed, which presents a problem for choreographers who do not have resources provided by a University, or who do not have grant funding.

The truly revolutionary thing about Tobacco Road Dance Productions, though, is not that simply that it offers a new kind of performance opportunity – it is that it provides its choreographers with an advisory board that offers informed feedback throughout the development of the work. Mandatory works-in-progress showings occur twice between application and performance, and thus far, they have been “fantastic”, Stephanie said.

Christiana Barnett-Murphy performs. Photo by Devin Kelley.

Christiana Barnett-Murphy performs. Photo by Devin Kelley.

“Everyone has invested so much into the works-in-progress showings…To be in the room, to see new dance ideas, and to be a part of engaging, intelligent dance talk has been so enjoyable,” Stephanie said. “We have gotten to hash out the nitty-gritty details of spacing and choreography, but we also gotten to go deeper into choreographic intention. It was ultimately us asking ‘How can we develop or improve something?’ and then going from there.”

Though the panel of experts will change every year – this year it was made up of Renay Aumiller, Nicola Bullock and Lightsey Darst – Stephanie hopes to maintain the standard set by this year’s panel.

“The three panelists have been making their phone numbers and e-mails available to the choreographers beyond the showings,” Stephanie said. “As an organization, we are committed to helping our choreographers make their pieces the best they can be.”

The ultimate goal is that the application and collaborative development processes will positively impact the Triangle Dance Community at every level. In other words, if a choreographer’s work isn’t selected for the concert, he or she has had the positive experience of applying and verbalizing his or her choreographic intent in an academic way; if a community member attends a critical feedback session, he or she is having an enriched dance viewing experience.

“Our choreographers…have been handed this group of people who are respected and educated that can provide brand new eyes for [their pieces] from start to finish…so they are going to see a better final product than they would if they were working in isolation.” Stephanie said “I think our [work development] process is so different that it has to result in a different product.”

A new work by Helen Hickey / Photo Credit Paula Court

A new work by Helen Hickey / Photo Credit Paula Court

And this year’s choreographers tend to agree; recent Sarah Lawrence Dance MFA Graduate Helen Hickey said her experience working with TRDP has been “amazing” so far.

“Coming out of [Sarah Lawrence], which is such a specifically dance-centric community, I was concerned about not being able to find the same level of thoughtful dance feedback in the real world…School is not the same as life,” Helen said. “It has been great to talk to the [TRDP] panel and to get feedback not just about my movement, but also about overarching concepts in my work. It has made me question how I see my own work and alter things accordingly.”

So what can viewers expect to see in January?

When the TRDP selection committee assembled the show lineup, its members looked for proposals that stood out as promising works, and also considered what would make the show feel complete.

“No one wants to see just solos or a bunch of grim pieces in a row,” Stephanie said. “The pieces in our show run the whole gamut of moods and ensemble sizes… I think it will be a pretty satisfying night of dance.”

This year features a solo, a duet, a trio, a quartet and a dance-for-camera piece with about 20 featured dancers, and highlights local artists Anna Barker/Real.Live.People.Durham, Christiana Barnett-Murphy, Diego Carrasco Dance, Helen Hickey, and Natalie Teichmann/ANAHATA Dance.

A dance for camera work by Natalie Teichmann/ANAHATA Dance. Photo credit :  KP Wee Photography

A dance for camera work by Natalie Teichmann/ANAHATA Dance. Photo credit : KP Wee Photography

“I think [TDRP] adds a lot to the Triangle Dance Community – especially for people who are new to the area – those returning as adults or those who are just new in general,” Helen said. “My experience with the dance scene here before was just as a student – as a local girl who liked to dance. This show has helped me to see and be involved in the community as a creator and choreographer instead of just as a dancer. I am grateful for the opportunity because I don’t know how I would have re-integrated myself into the scene otherwise after being away for so long.”

Stephanie and Bill plan to keep opening doors for local choreographers by making Tobacco Road Dance Productions: In Concert an annual event – a sign of their lasting dedication to dance in the Triangle.

“If everyone steps up their participation a little bit more, our Triangle Dance Community will be a little bit better than it was before,” Stephanie said.

If it’s participation they need – let’s give it to them. Tickets for Tobacco Road Dance Productions: In Concert are available at www.tobaccoroaddance.org, or at the Common Ground Theatre beginning at 7:00 PM, January 30th and 31st.


Common Ground Theatre

4815B Hillsborough Rd

Durham, NC


January 30th @ 8 PM

January 31st @ 8 PM


General Admission: $15

General Admission: $1