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Will Penrose

Choreographer Wally Cardona, seen here performing with Jennifer Lacey in “The Set Up,” is one of three residents at VPL who will be participating in Open Lab on May 30.

The Arts

Out of the woods

Vermont Performance Lab puts community involvement on the same level as its artistic endeavors

GUILFORD—Sara Coffey, the director and founder of Vermont Performance Lab (VPL), does not want VPL to be an arts organization lost in the the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

The Guilford-based nonprofit arts organization is dedicated to supporting artists in the creation and development of new work and bringing artistic experiences to rural Vermont communities.

While pursuing the development of avant garde performance projects is central to VPL, community involvement is also crucial.

In fact, engagement with Brattleboro and its surrounding towns is part of the mission of VPL.

In its ongoing commitment to work with the people of Southern Vermont, VPL is participating in several community events in the upcoming weeks.

On Saturday, May 30, VPL will present a one-day festival of contemporary dance for the whole family, Open Lab.

Then, in the middle of June, VPL will be teaming up with two local Southern Vermont LGBTQ organizations to produce a full weekend of activities and events as part of the annual Pride Weekend.

Being relatively new on the local art scene, VPL had to work hard to generate awareness about what they do, according to Coffey. VPL probably has to do more of it than some of the other art organizations, she said, because dance and performance art are not part of most people’s cultural diet.

Last year, VPL collaborated with Sandglass Theater in Putney to bring to Southern Vermont an unforgettable look at the interconnectedness of land and culture in Louisiana, Cry You One, an outdoor multimedia performance by award-winning theater ensembles Mondo Bizarro and ArtSpot Productions.

On May 30, VPL will launch Open Lab on the campus of Marlboro College in Marlboro.

Simultaneously fun and informal, Open Lab is a one-day festival that starts with an afternoon picnic followed by open rehearsals, workshop, films, talks, and conversations with three 2015 VPL Lab Artists: Beth Gill, Jennifer Monson, and Wally Cardona.

“VPL is doing something really different here,” says Coffey. “This is a first-time event, bringing three of our Lab artists to Vermont at the same time. We are excited to familiarize VPL audiences with the work of three choreographers who are making ground-breaking work.”

In the past, VPL has shown works-in-progress and completed pieces in performance by its artists. But this is the first time the public will be invited to look inside to see how the works are actually being created through workshops and rehearsals.

Coffey got the idea for the event from the open studios for the visual arts, which are so popular in Vermont. Like those special days, when the community is invited into the art studios of visual artists to have a chance to see them work in their own spaces, Open Lab is letting the public into dance studios.

“We first were going to call it Open Studio, but we sort of feel that was branded by the Vermont Crafts Council,” says Coffey. “Yet like like those other open houses, we are throwing the door of our laboratory open to let people come and see workshops and rehearsal as they engage in conversation with the artists.”

For people who already have an interest in dance, as well as those merely curious, this free event is structured to be great fun for the whole family.

The event kicks off at noon with a festive “farm to table” picnic featuring fresh local ingredients. Audiences can enjoy a picnic on the grounds and stroll throughout the Marlboro College campus in between activities. The first 100 patrons will receive a complimentary picnic blanket.

From 1 p.m. until 3 p.m., audiences are invited to get to know the artists and glimpse into the early stages of making a dance by observing rehearsals and talking with choreographers Cardona and Gill.

From 3 until 5 p.m., choreographer Jennifer Monson will offer an iLanding workshop – a process that explores the power of dance in collaboration with other fields to illuminate a kinetic understanding of the world. This workshop is open to all. No prior dance experience needed. This workshop will be limited to 20 people and registration is required.

Coffey is not sure how successful the day will be.

“This is a big experiment for us,” she says. “Audiences can see what these artist are doing and making. They can have an Ah-hah moment: so that’s how they do it.

“What we are hoping to achieve here aligns with our Performance Club and In-the- Works programs. In all of these endeavors, VPL is trying to make these contemporary performance accessible to people, not by dumbing the work down, but by finding ways to make them accessible for more people.”

The artists of Open Lab are all in residency at VPL this year.

“They all are pretty big deals, major players in contemporary dance,” says Coffey.

Wally Cardona is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and in 2012 became one of 21 American performing artists to receive the inaugural 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award. Beth Gill has received received a 2015 Guggenheim Award and in 2012 Dance Magazine named her as one of the top 25 artists to watch. Jennifer Monson has received two Bessie award (similar to a dance/performance Oscar) as well as fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others.

“All three of these major artists are eager to join this experiment of Open Lab, because like us they want to reach a different audience than the downtown New York scene,” adds Coffey.

Then, on June 19 -21, VPL will be teaming up with Green Mountain Crossroads and CineSLAM – Vermont’s LGBT Film Festival, to bring performance art icon Carmelita Tropicana and filmmaker Ela Troyano to Vermont as one of the highlights of Pride Weekend in southern Vermont.

During the festivities, CineSLAM will screen Troyano’s film “Your Kunst is Your Waffen” (“Your Art is Your Weapon”) as part of the 7th Annual CineSLAM Film Festival.

On Saturday and Sunday, both Tropicana and filmmaker Ela Troyano will participate in an afternoon artist talk and Italian–style picnic at the Tree Frog farm in Guilford, and offer a “Writing and Performing Autobiography” workshop to teens and adults.

“Our partners help ground VPL artists and projects in our community,” says Coffey. “The partnership with CineSLAM and Green Mountain Crossroads is very special as it is a wonderful example of how three organizations can come together to create a series of events that celebrate diversity and foster dialogue and tolerance in our community around LGBTQ and social justice issues.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #307 (Wednesday, May 27, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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