The Tannery’s breathtaking, new nonprofit dance center gives a global spark to the local scene
The vision of the Tannery Arts Center as a creative mecca of Santa Cruz is about to be realized. Artists and their families have already been occupying the Tannery’s 100 riverfront residential units for the past two years. But now, the second phase of the project is drawing near, with the renovation of two historic tannery buildings complete and slated to open in 2012 as the new Digital Media and Creative Arts Center. Among the individual artists and art cooperatives that will occupy the 28 working studios will be The Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do for many years,” says Cat Willis, the new dance center’s founder. “Two years ago when I found out that the Tannery was coming to fruition I was intrigued by the idea that it would become a centerpiece for arts and culture in Santa Cruz.”
The Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center will offer children and adults classes in dance from cultures around the globe. Diverse styles will include Afro-Caribbean, flamenco, Bollywood, hip-hop, ballet, Haitian folk, modern, Congolese, Senegalese, contemporary, Afro-urban, street method, urban jazz, tango, and Polynesian. Body-awareness, strength, and alignment classes, such as pilates and Feldenkrais, will also be offered.
Many of the classes will incorporate cultural activities into dance lessons, such as a children’s flamenco class combined with Spanish language immersion. In addition, the nonprofit dance center plans to one day provide 20 full scholarships per year for at-risk youth in Santa Cruz County (people who wish to donate should visit indiegogo.com, and search under “60 Dance Lovers for $100 in 60 Days Campaign”).
Willis first became interested in the cultural roots of dance expression when she studied in New York under the Jamaican artist Garth Fagan. To become immersed in the art form she was learning, she traveled to Jamaica, where she spent a year studying at The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston. She describes the college as a cultural heart in the middle of the city—a model that inspired her vision for The Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center.
“I grew as an artist and a person because I was able to be immersed in the culture as well as studying the forms,” she says, explaining that this immersion allowed her to more deeply understand why she was dancing.
After studying and performing throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and West Africa, Willis settled in Santa Cruz 11 years ago and has been active in the dance community ever since. She’s taught dance throughout the county, including two years with Mountain Elementary School as resident choreographer, as well as served on the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County. Willis was The 418 Project’s 2009 Artist in Residence and the Theatre Bay Area’s CA$H grant recipient in dance. Her work through her dance company, DIASPORA, has been shown throughout Santa Cruz and the Bay Area.
With all this activity in the local and regional dance world, Willis discovered a niche that was yet to be filled in Santa Cruz. She recognized that as a bedroom community of the larger Bay Area, Santa Cruz is home to world-class dancers—many of whom have taught and performed in San Francisco and other large cities.
“There are so many (acclaimed) artists living in Santa Cruz—and people don’t even realize they’re here,” says Willis. “When we as a city value these artists and provide a platform for them to perform with other artists, it gives them an opportunity to (further) develop their craft. The studio is making these world-class artists accessible.”
One example is Micha Scott, who was a principle dancer with Garth Fagan Dance for over 13 years. She has performed on stages all over the world and has been featured in PBS’s “Great Performances” and Dance Magazine. Locally, Scott performed this past September in Tandy Beal’s acclaimed, “Here After Here.” At Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center, Scott will teach modern dance for kids and adults.
Another featured teacher is Lizzy Harlan, who danced with American Ballet Theater (ABT) for nine years. Chosen by Mikhail Baryshnikov to join ABT in 1991, Harlan went on to perform as a principle dancer with the renowned company. She currently teaches ballet privately and will offer beginning, intermediate, and advanced ballet instruction for children and teens at the dance center.
Willis is also thrilled to feature Vivien Bassouamina from Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo. After practicing traditional Congolese dance throughout his life, Bassouamina left his war-torn homeland to study contemporary dance in Europe. He moved to Santa Cruz in 2008, and began teaching traditional Congolese dance and performing throughout the Bay Area. His most recent dance, “Reconciliation,” premiered in Santa Cruz in 2010. At the dance center, Bassouamina will teach adult and children’s Congolese.
“Nowhere else in Santa Cruz do we offer kids’ Congolese, kids’ flamenco, kids’ Senegalese,” says Willis. “When children walk into class, they’ll get a song from Senegal. They’ll be taking in a little of the language, the dance forms, and the music. They’ll probably be able to identify Senegal on a map. In school, they’re not really getting much art. Here, they’ll walk away with a positive cultural experience that they’ll never forget.”
The renovated dance center—complete with sprung floors, lofted open-beam ceilings, and 1,621 square feet of danceable space—will open with the rest of the Digital Media and Creative Arts Center in January 2012, with registration to begin the first week of December. But between now and the end of the year, the dance center is offering a variety of sample classes, which will be held in the Tannery Community Room. Sample classes include kids’ modern, kids’ Senegalese, kids’ ballet, teen/adults’ contemporary, Haitain folklorico and adults’ Senegalese dance.
Adjacent to a new café and facing a history exhibit detailing the early days of the Salz Tannery, the dance center will share the Tannery campus with other working studio artists of all disciplines, including music, digital media, jewelry design, printmaking, ceramics, painting, and glass art.
“The Tannery Arts Center is a tourist destination and a cultural hub,” explains Ann Hazels, director of fundraising and programming at the Tannery. “Visitors will be able to come to the campus and see a master artist painting, drink a cup of coffee, and take a dance class. This is just as much for the public to enjoy as it is to support the artists.”
The Tannery will be participating in the First Friday Art Tour from 5-9 p.m. on Dec. 2, when artists from many of the working studios—including The Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center—will be available to meet and greet the public. Offerings will include wine, music, informal performances, and open rehearsals. Festivities will continue throughout the weekend with a hanging exhibition, holiday sale, and music and dance performances.
For more information about The Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, visit tanneryworlddance.com. For information about the Tannery Arts Center, visit tanneryartscenter.org.