In Concert 2019
PSI Theatre, Durham
Jess Shell wasn’t yet a Tobacco Road Dance Productions alumnus when she decided to keep the company from closing.
The longtime dancer and emerging choreographer was only halfway through the group’s core program, a half-year fellowship devoted to supporting and producing new works in progress, in early 2018, when founders Stephanie Woodbeck and William Commander announced that they were considering ending the project.
For four years, Tobacco Road had incubated new choreographers and assisted established dance-makers who wanted to effect significant changes in their work through a one-of-a-kind process. After a panel of dance veterans accepted their proposals for new works or new approaches to existing ones, artists received studio time and feedback through a series of workshops and viewings over a six-month mentorship as they developed their work.
Last year’s program provided Shell, a 2016 MFA graduate from UNC-Greensboro’s dance program, with “such an amazing experience that I felt the calling to step forward,” she says. So she enlisted the help of creative partner Lindsay Winthrop, a fellow MFA from UNCG, and together, they convinced the founders to let the company continue under their leadership.
A key part of the argument involved the experience both had in producing their own work. Beyond its process-driven workshops, Tobacco Road is also a production company, securing the venue, theatrical designers, technicians, and crew to stage the results of the fellowships in an annual springtime showcase.
To earn their graduate degrees, Shell and Winthrop had to do all that and more while producing their own evening-length works. That daunting task involved a complete refiguring of their university’s black box theater for performance in the round—plus a load-in involving five-hundred pounds of soil and a load-out returning the space to its original condition.
“We had to fight so hard to make that space our own, to present our creations on our own terms,” Winthrop recalls. “We went into Tobacco Road with the same feeling: We can do this, no matter how hard it is, to make it available for other choreographers.”
The new leaders are instituting a few strategic changes in their first year at the helm. According to Shell, extending the six-month mentorship to nine months was in large part due to happenstance—the outcome of wrestling with a set of conflicting production calendars. But the gift of extra time has been beneficial to the works to be presented.
“The artists went more in-depth into their investigations,” Shell says. “The extra time is visible.”
The group’s mentorship sessions have also been enhanced by the incorporation of critical response techniques pioneered by choreographer Liz Lerman, which emphasize description over verdicts.
“Initially, we thought we’d try different feedback processes throughout the year, but it felt so great that it just became our way of speaking,” says Winthrop.
More changes may be in store for next year’s program. Since so much contemporary dance is created for non-proscenium spaces, Winthrop and Shell are contemplating a second stage production in an alternative venue. That added concert would also allow Tobacco Road to provide dance-makers crucial opportunities for acquiring the backstage, technical, and managerial skills required to produce their own work.
“A lot of choreographers don’t have experience in self-production, and there aren’t that many outlets where they can learn,” Winthrop says. “We can provide that knowledge.”
Tobacco Road’s class of 2019 takes the stage Friday and Saturday at PSI Theatre; the cohort includes company alumni Silvia Sheffield and Marsha Thomas, UNC-Chapel Hill dance faculty member Heather Tatreau, and newcomers Madeline Braxton, Emily Crofford, Marco Orellana-Portillo, and Megan Payne.