Next month marks two years since arts organizations everywhere began coping with canceled schedules, unemployed artists, empty venues and uncertain funding. But the 41-year-old Wellspring/Cori Terry & Dancers troupe is emerging flexible and resilient, as is one of its signature annual events, the Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Fest, also known as RAD Fest.
The three-day juried event returns to the Epic Center March 4–6 for four dance concerts, featuring 30 modern, post-modern and contemporary works created and performed by upwards of 250 choreographers and dancers from New York, North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Utah, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina and Michigan.
RAD Fest Curator Rachel Miller has been in charge of the festival for the past 10 of its 13 years. Miller, who is an adjunct instructor of dance at Grand Valley State University and co-chair of the dance department at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and has danced for 17 years as a Wellspring company member, says the event was created in 2009 when two Wellspring programs were combined.
“One was the Alternative Dance Project, which presented a guest company in an evening-length program. The other was the Dance Forum, which invited guest dancers from the region to perform,” she says.
In 2021, RAD Fest was virtual due to Covid-19, although when the months-long process of submissions, adjudication and curation for the festival began in late 2020, no one knew how the performances would be presented. As most organizations that pivoted to livestreamed events learned, there were unexpected benefits to going virtual.
“As we sold tickets to viewers in seven different countries, we learned we can reach and affect so many people,” Miller says. “What surprised us was the greater level of artist-audience interaction. Perhaps because people were more comfortable engaging virtually, the artist talks, Q&As and panels saw more involvement in contributing to the conversation.”
This year RAD Fest returns to performances for in-person audiences but will also offer livestreaming. It will also show a selection of “screendances” — works designed to be filmed — by artists from Barbados, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland and the U.S. and will feature a piece created and performed by inaugural RADicle Resident Artist Helanius Wilkins.
Wilkins’ piece, “The Conversation Series: Stitching the Geopolitical Quilt to Re-Body Belonging,” will be a community-inspired work created out of conversations and movement experiences with local community members. It premieres March 4.
Wilkins, an associate chair and professor of dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder, will spend two weeks before the performance convening an intergenerational and multicultural group to share stories and local cultural history. Wilkins plans to replicate the project in each of the 50 U.S. states and have a documentary of the process made.
For audiences, RAD Fest offers an array of presentations that include open rehearsals, lectures and interactive sessions. For emerging, professional and experimental dance artists, there will be professional-development experiences such as master classes, lectures, panel discussions and networking events.
“It’s kind of like a dance convention,” Miller says. “I know of several choreographers who have been hired to teach or choreograph because of their work with us.”
This year choreographer Elijah Alhadi Gibson will participate in RAD Fest for the third time, bringing dancers from his Social Movement Contemporary Dance company from Houston to perform “The Culture,” created in 2021. Gibson has performed and taught throughout the U.S., Europe and South America and was a dancer with Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago for eight years.
“We are always amazed and inspired by the quality of work being presented at RAD Fest,” Gibson says. “Every year the dancers ask if we will be going and which piece will be submitted, hoping they will get to attend. We consider it a highlight of our season and look forward to sharing our work and seeing others perform.”
Still, the shadow of the pandemic remains, and there will be pandemic-related aspects to the audience experience. In addition to offering livestreaming for online audiences, the festival will require attendees and in-person audience members to wear masks and provide proof of Covid vaccination status (or proof of a recent negative test).
“We are planning on the possibility of the dancers performing in masks. After all, we’re breathing hard and sweating all over each other,” Miller says. “But returning to live performances is so important — dance, especially, is something you feel in the moment, in the presence of the dancers.”
A RAD Fest youth performance is scheduled for Sunday, March 6, and Miller encourages families to put that concert on their calendar as a way to introduce children to dance performance. “We will have youth artists from throughout Michigan and from Indiana and Kentucky,” she says.
Miller also says the festival’s audience has expanded tenfold in the past ten years. “We draw patrons from all over the state, the Midwest and the country, even from out of the country over the years: Ivory Coast, Japan, China, Canada, Mexico and Brazil.”
Local restaurants, pubs and hotels appreciate RAD Fest’s economic impact on Kalamazoo, as attendees and audience members dine, drink, socialize and stay overnight at local venues.
Foundations and other donors also appreciate this impact and are therefore willing to help fund the festival. “What the arts community knows but the public may not understand is that ticket sales are usually the smallest part of an organization’s income, which highlights the importance of local donors and funding organizations,” explains Wellspring Executive Director Kate Yancho.
But Miller says knowing RAD Fest has made an impact on the wider world is also gratifying. She recalls a point about halfway through her tenure when she visited Germany for a dance event in 2015. “People were asking me what I did, and I told them I curated this dance festival in the U.S., in a place called Michigan, and they had heard of us. It was so exciting.”