The Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre is rehearsing a piece that depends on props and costuming that aren’t quite holding together.
At this point, performances are two weeks away, and Susan Collard doesn’t appear too worried. After 38 years of ups and down and dips and turns she could never have choreographed, Collard responds to these malfunctions with a smile.
“You have these visions of what you want to create,” Collard said. “And then (you have) the bill, and then ‘how do you raise your money?’”
In a city of bootstrapping artists and entrepreneurs, Susan Collard is a quiet matriarch of determination and perseverance.
She started Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater with no trail to follow, no blueprint. She’d danced in college in Pittsburgh but had never belonged to a company. She only held a notion of the kind of dance she wanted to stage.
Today, nearly 40 years later, Collard and her husband run Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater as modestly as when she launched it—production by production, season by season.
“When you create a company from nothing, you wait and you struggle, and find the right people,” she said. “You keep working at it day after day after day.”
Collard arrived in Asheville at the dawn of the 1970s with her then-husband’s engineering job, and she remembers a “fairly dead and unfriendly” segregated city with a tiny arts scene and nothing resembling modern dance. But Collard met more people in the arts, took classes at the local ballet school and met people through the arts at UNC-Asheville.
“I think I’m that kind of person that I can actually find something. I’m patient,” she said. “I’m not so dramatic that I’m going to pack my bags and leave tomorrow.”
Collard taught kindergarten at the Jewish Community Center. Parents saw how she worked with kids on the dance floor and asked her to to teach more dance. A school slowly grew, and Collard began attracting adults into modern dance classes. Collard was among four women who founded Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, but creative visions splintered the collective, and Collard took over on her own.
From the beginning, Collard’s company addressed women’s liberation and other social issues of the day, but they weren’t confident people cared.
“We struggled to get an audience here,” she said. “It was a ballet audience, an audience for square dancing, and audience for competition dancing, but not an audience for experimental modern dance.”
Collard split from a husband she regarded as controlling, but doing so also stripped her company of its financial foundation. Collard sold her car to keep things going, and each production left her on the verge of destitution.
“We were creating a new ballet about sexuality and I had a thousand dollars left in my savings account,” she recalled. “I had to use all my money to pay my way out of that hole. You know, I’ve done that a lot, so now it’s not a new thing anymore. That’s what you do.”
Collard adopted the name of her second husband, Giles Collard. He started as a student in her school, joined the company 31 years ago and is now co-director. But if Susan Collard has an artistic collaborator, it’s Nelson Reyes, a young Cuban among many the Collards have welcomed over the years into their home and dance studio.
“Death by Plastica,” a dance of environmental consciousness co-created by Collard and Reyes, premieres Oct. 27-29 at the BeBe Theatre. Watch a segment of "Death by Plastica" during a recent rehearsal.
“My work is always conceptual and his work is very on the beat, sometimes very linear. We talk about it; we fight about it. It’s intense,” Collard said of the dance she makes with Reyes. “We love each—he’s like my kid—and together we can do very good things.”
The company is on more solid—but hardly concrete—financial footing. It still tours to Cuba and Mexico every few years. And at 73, Collard, a mother of four and grandmother to four more, hasn’t lost the fire to stage meaningful dance.
“I don’t want to quit. I want to stay involved,” she said. “ Every time I go somewhere else in the world, I go to see dance. I meet dancers, I invite them here, I want to work with them. I think that’s my life.”