One of the county’s most innovative theater and dance portals reaches a new milestone
To the untrained eye, the building located directly across the street from the Downtown Santa Cruz Metro station is just that—another building. Thanks to a beautiful but rather intrusive tree blocking the yellow sign that hangs above the entrance, one could easily mistake the Front Street building for India Joze’s new cafe. That’s partially true, but what lies behind it is the lifeblood of the Santa Cruz performance community: The 418 Project.
Just beyond the enticing aroma of chef Jozseph Schultz’ Middle Eastern and South Asian delicacies is a haven for the ethnic, contemporary, ecstatic, and modern dancers of the area to leap, twirl, pirouette, stomp and tumble to their hearts’ content.
Celebrating its 18th year, The 418 Project has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Originally called Santa Cruz Dance Gallery, the venue was founded by local dancer Rita Rivera to fill a void in the community.
“There really wasn’t much of a professional dance level in town,” explains Rivera, who was instrumental in getting the space off the ground with the help of Ronn Reinberg, a long-time theater technician and supporter of local arts. “When I opened it, it was really to have a studio that specialized in contemporary dance, that I could use for my dance company, as well as the community—particularly the ethnic dance community—I wanted to give it a voice.”
For the first seven years, Rivera brought in contemporary dancers from across the country to host workshops and masters classes at Santa Cruz Dance Gallery. And, at the time, the front of the building (where India Joze is now located) functioned as an art gallery. Soon, Samba dancers, Capoeira students, and drum circles began to call the venue home. “Community spaces are really necessary,” says Rivera. “It’s bigger than just contemporary dance—that became obvious to me while I was running it.”
Today, The 418 Project (as it was eventually renamed), has expanded its reach under the leadership of current Executive Director Ana Marden, and become a hub for a variety of dance classes—including samba, African dance, Brazilian dance, improvisational dance, contemplative dance, West African dance, and more—programs like The Next Frontier that foster local artists, as well as metal and punk shows in support of the area’s thriving music community.
Relying almost entirely on the community for support as grants become increasingly sparse, the nonprofit subleases the storefront of the building, hosts fundraisers like the ever-popular “What is Erotic?” dance/theater production every February, rents out the space for birthday parties, special events, and concerts on the weekend—and, most importantly, relies on its enthusiastic patrons, particularly the dozens who flock to Dance Church every Sunday—to keep it afloat.
“If you’re aware of local dance or of the ethnic dance community, you know about The 418 Project,” says Marden, who took over the position three years ago. “And 18 years is a pretty big deal in Santa Cruz.”
A Dancer’s Sanctuary
The first time Jim Brown, executive director of the Diversity Center, visited The 418, it was 1997, and the avid Deadhead was looking for a space to dance and be physically expressive, after the passing of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. So, a friend introduced him to a Friday night dance jam called Dance Planet.
After two years of involvement, Brown suggested that the class, which he admits had become “a little dark and seedy,” could use an image makeover. “I’ve always been involved in dance jams and ecstatic dance,” he explains. “And since my whole interest is through a spiritual connection, I thought it would be a cool idea to have a dance jam in the morning, which might make the atmosphere lighter.”
Eventually, a friend agreed to take it on as a school project, and Dance Church was born. The group would meet up at The 418 every Sunday morning and engage in conscious, freeform, and introspective dance, where all judgment and conversation were left at the door. Though it is hardly “church” as the word is traditionally defined, there is an altar—each week it is designed by a different member of the group: “It ranges from flowers to Buddhas,” explains Brown—and reflection/meditation is paramount.
“There’s some of us who see it as a spiritual experience, and then there’s some who go to have a space to dance,” says Brown. “For me, it’s about connecting with something larger than yourself.”
What started as a gathering of 20-30 people grew to a massive following. Now, Dance Church averages 70-100 regulars—and after 14 years, it is still a part of Brown’s Sunday morning routine.
“It’s quite a scene,” he says. “New people come pretty much every week—a few weeks ago a young woman came and said, ‘In the last two hours, I’ve had more fun than I can remember ever having.’ There’s something magical about Dance Church.”
Brown isn’t the only person to feel that way.
“Through Dance Church, people have married and had families,” says Marden. “The Dance Church community has been a solid foundation—they love [The 418] so much, that when the building was up for sale, they had established such a group that they came together to purchase the building.”
There are Dance Church groups around the country, but Brown believes that the community at The 418 is particularly special in that it is entirely donation-based. “This is the single biggest moneymaker for The 418 Project, and it’s self-sustaining,” he says. “We average about $600 per week out of the pockets of participants.”
It was Brown’s passion for Dance Church that motivated him to move into the position of executive director of The 418 Project from 2003-2006. “[Dance Church] is not for everybody,” he says. “I’ve brought friends over the years and one in 10 actually gets it. But there are plenty of people out there who want it and need it.”
A Helping Hand
If you had told choreographer/dancer Mandy Greenlee last January that in less than a year, she would debut her first full-length production to a packed house at The 418 Project—she would have called you crazy.
But, with the help of The 418 Project’s Next Frontier Program, Greenlee’s dream came true. Just last month, “Shifting Currents”—a full-length dance showcase that examines the coming of age of women—took over The 418, and gave Santa Cruz a taste of what the up-and-coming artist has to offer.
A seven-month mentorship that began last March, the Next Frontier Program coached Greenlee in all aspects of her production: from marketing, to fundraising, to gathering a tech crew, and tackling the emotional struggles that came up along the way.
“It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” says Greenlee, who submitted her application last February, in which she had to explain her vision for the project and how she was ready for the challenge as an artist. “Both the process and the culmination of performances were amazing—it felt really satisfying, and I got great feedback.”
Though Greenlee has more than 20 years of choreographing and dancing experience, she lacked the training and resources to direct a full production. Now, her portfolio makes her eligible for grants and an array of other opportunities in dance.
“Sure, I could have figured it out on my own,” says Greenlee. “But knowing that I had the support of The 418 behind me was a huge safety net—I was so glad I didn’t have to do it blindly, and the confidence that I developed along the way is great.”
Considering many emerging artists who haven’t directed or produced their own shows are ineligible for most grants and residencies, Greenlee believes the Next Frontier Program is an invaluable community asset.
“It’s set up for artists who are eager, willing, excited and motivated,” she says. “I don’t know of any other programs like that.”
As someone who has utilized the venue for the last five years—whether in shows, dance/theater programs, Dance Church, or classes like samba and contemporary dance—Greenlee can’t imagine Santa Cruz without The 418 Project.
“I constantly fall in love with The 418,” she says. “It’s a real opportunity for the mixing and matching of cultural groups in Santa Cruz. On a Saturday, it could be a punk show or a dance performance—there’s a real community feel.”
A Home Away From Home
Long before Marden took the reigns at The 418, she felt a deep connection to the community that utilized the space. A lover of the arts and culture, with a background in dance and theater, she worked in association with the Cultural Council to host the annual Calabash Awards: a local institution designed to recognize ethnic artists in the area. It was there that she met many of the dancers who flock to The 418 every week to rehearse and perform.
“I knew almost all the dance community there,” she says. “There was a part of me that was already ingrained there.” Focused on movement and community, Marden works to fulfill the mission of The 418 every day: to inspire transformation with commitment to dance. Keeping an open mind about diversity has been key in accomplishing that goal.
“We’ve seen the gamut—from working with the street community in Santa Cruz, to people who rent the space and dance there, to the police community and parents,” explains Marden. “It’s a lot of micro-communities who don’t necessarily interact.”
As the sole employee of The 418 Project, Marden carries most of the responsibility on her shoulders when it comes to coordinating the various groups who use the space, and ensuring everyone gets their fair share of performance time … and she’s not paid full-time.
“Even with the economy, we’re very bare bones,” says Marden, who relied on proceeds from fundraisers to give the dance floor a much-needed facelift. “We’re looking at a pretty big deficit.”
That didn’t stop The 418 from supporting local artists in need when the recession took a turn for the worse. A few years back, the nonprofit decided to institute “Stimulus Mondays”: three hours of open studio time every Monday, during which artists can pop in and use the space for free.
To ensure the future of The 418 (and hopefully, another 18 years and more), Marden and her team are looking into more collaborative events with India Joze; offering more community education about dance and movement with the help of a spring series called “Dance Speak”—selected choreographers will have the chance to show their work and do a Q&A session afterward; and getting the word out that the space is available for events and groups, especially young people.
“The teens in town don’t really have a place to hang out; schools don’t have as many dances anymore, either,” says Marden. “The 418 honors diversity for people of all ages and genders—and now, with India Joze, people can have their events catered too.”
In an effort to increase community participation and reward its loyal supporters, The 418 has just unveiled a new membership program, called “Project Phoenix.” Membership perks include early notification of upcoming productions, premium seating, pre-event appetizers at India Joze, recognition in all 418 self-production programs, and more.
This weekend, Marden invites all dance lovers and those who want to learn more about what The 418 Project has to offer to attend the Third annual Emerging Choreographers Showcase, Nov. 11-12. Four up-and-coming choreographers—Erin Price, Colette Kollewe, Frankie Rivera, and Brance Souza—will be given the unique opportunity to showcase their work in 20-minute segments with the help of a group of local dancers.
Looking ahead, Marden is optimistic about what’s to come for the organization, and its place in the hearts of Santa Cruzans. “The future of the arts is to educate people so they can appreciate them,” says Marden. “And The 418 is a space for people to grow and support each other every week.”
For more information about The 418 Project, including how to rent the space, how to get involved, and to view a class schedule, visit the418.org. The Emerging Choreographers Showcase takes place at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 12. Tickets are $15/general, $12/students, and are available for purchase at the door only.
1. Contemporary dancer Rita Rivera founded Santa Cruz Dance Gallery in 1993.
2. Executive Director Ana Marden sees The 418 as a hub for diversity and creative expression in Santa Cruz.
3. Locals flock to West African Dance on Wednesdays from 6-7:25 p.m.
4. Locals engage in conscious, freeform, and introspective dance at Dance Church. Photo Kwailam.com
5. Dance Church—by far the most popular group that meets at The 418 Project—averages between 70 and 100 participants every Sunday. Photo Kwailam.com
6. Next Frontier Artist Mandy Greenlee debuted her first full-length production, “Shifting Currents,” at The 418 in October
Photos 1,2,3: Keana Parker