Stewart and Owen adapt, dance and roll with the pandemic
Gavin Stewart and Vanessa Owen are rehearsing with two other dancers inside a studio at the Wortham Center for Performing Arts. Everyone is masked.
“OK Janice, so can you lift your eyes when you do that?” Stewart asks one of the dancers while watching a sequence of movement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s juicy.”
They had such grand plans for their collaboration with Asheville storytelling poet Gina Cornejo. They would have seated the audience in the middle of the dance floor, as if inside the hole of a donut, and performed the piece around them.
Instead, as they have done so often during the pandemic, Stewart and Owen have improvised. They had planned to perform a piece called “Dirty Laundry” in front of an audience. They’re now converting it into a video production that will stream online to ticket-holders, premiering Feb. 12 through the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.
“Three months ago, we probably would have said ‘Well, let’s wait until we can do it live,’” Stewart said.
“But I will say, I think this is now pivot four for ‘Dirty Laundry,’” Owen added. “So for Gina, Gavin and I, we’re also just so ready to do it, because we’ve been talking about doing it for over a year.”
Before the pandemic, Stewart Owen Dance would perform once or twice each year in this region, but largely worked far beyond their home in Old Fort. They traveled to dance festivals around the country to market themselves as teachers and choreographers, and they made their living from the ensuing gigs and commissions.
“Because we both do this together and we’re married, that’s a big part of why we feel it’s necessary for us to only do things where we can get some funding,” Owen said. “It’s our whole lives, our whole income, our whole everything. We have yet to acquire a sugar daddy.”
Perhaps no performers in this region have diversified and adapted their art to the pandemic as Stewart and Owen. In July of 2020, they choreographed dance for film at the request of a company doing cultural diplomacy work for the U.S. State Department. Soon after, Rae Geoffrey of the Wortham asked them to create an ensemble dance production in the parking lot of the Asheville Outlet Mall. Their attire included tennis shoes, knee pads and gloves.
“We were rehearsing on this black asphalt. We were in masks outside, in a hundred degrees. I mean, it was insane,” Owen recalled. “We had conversations about if we’re contacting the asphalt with our hands, are we gonna catch Covid because somebody had walked there earlier that day? But because of the circumstances, our bodies handled it because we were so grateful to be doing art.”
Over the past two years, they’ve taught dance classes and set new work over Zoom in Tulsa, Tampa and elsewhere. But as the pandemic stretched, Owen and Stewart leaned into their own dance work through local collaborations. Back at the Wortham, they teamed with Cornejo for the first time while also pairing up other dancers and writers. For their performances, the couple placed audiences in pods and choreographed their movements along that of the performers to maximize social distancing.
“We were always traveling so much prior to the pandemic, that we really didn’t get to know a lot of artists in this community until the pandemic,” Owen said. “Now we’ve developed all these relationships with people who are incredible in their medium and I think we’ll continue to collaborate in that way.”