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More than four decades in, Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre still experimental

Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre rehearsal
Matt Peiken | BPR News
Susan and Giles Collard watch dancers rehearse for their performance at the (Re)Happening.

Susan Collard was just 25 years old when she started her dance school in Asheville. That was 53 years ago.

“I love this. I mean, I could be sitting home knitting,” she said during a Thursday night rehearsal of the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, at the BeBe Theatre. “I don’t want to do that. This is more fun.”

Collard and her husband, Giles, a former dance student of hers and now company co-director, are watching four female dancers work through solos and pairings. This is in preparation for the (Re)Happening, an all-day festival designed to honor the experimental ethos of Black Mountain College.

The invitation to perform is a testament and homage to Collard that her company, more than four decades after Collard founded it, still produces experimental work. The company performs around 8pm, toward the end of the April 2 festival at Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain.

“The piece is about borders, and I feel like borders are unnecessary. They’re negative,” she said, then pointed to the company’s newest dancer, Angela Gorman.

“But Angela was saying tonight, ‘No, boundaries and borders aren’t always bad. Sometimes they help people to find their lives.’ Yeah, maybe that’s true,” Collard said. “So we’re looking at this from different perspectives.”

Collard said the pandemic hit her company like a brick, halting the debut of a new community dance festival two days before tech rehearsals. But Giles Collard said they and most of their dancers hardly missed a step.

“By mid-April, we were performing already,” he said. “We performed every Sunday all around Asheville, outdoors for free. We did amazing work. We danced in factories, on railroad tracks, audience or no audience.”

After classes were canceled, Giles Collard, said 80 percent of people who enrolled went forward with their tuition payments to help the company. Once health guidelines allowed them back indoors, the company worked on solos for video streaming into remote festivals and also put on children’s shows. Federal support for small businesses was a financial lifeline.

When classes resumed, the Collards limited the dance floor to six students at a time, for distancing protocols. They liked the intimacy so much, they’ve continued with that limit to this day, despite the hit to their revenue.

“I mean, if this were about money, we wouldn’t be doing this, right?” Susan Collard said. “We’re a small company. We can operate on a shoestring. Nobody’s on salary. Giles and I don’t get paid.”

“We paid the rent and utilities for two years with no earned income,” Giles Collard added.

The Collards have their creative lens set next on a summer production inspired by the Black French entertainer Josephine Baker, portrayed by longtime company member Sharon Cooper.