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Dance company moves — and brings technology along with it

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Kanopy Next Generation in 2020

Kanopy Dance's "Martha Graham: The Next Generation," performed in 2020, featured dancers from Kanopy 2, the company's pre-professional training program.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the reason the contemporary dance company Kanopy Dance had to find a new home for its dance studio.

But the pandemic helped shape that new home.

Kanopy, a resident company of the Overture Center that for 16 years ran a second-floor teaching studio and rehearsal space in the 300 block of State St., found out last June that its building was to be demolished to make way for development.

So, pandemic or not, the real estate hunt was on.

Robert Cleary and Jamie McFadden looking at construction at Kanopy space

Kanopy Center for Modern and Contemporary Dance co-artistic director Robert Cleary, right, and James McFadden of McFadden & Company architects examine the progress being made on converting a former coffee shop into the dance company's new home.

“And all roads led us back to Downtown,” said Kanopy spokesperson Susanne Voeltz. “We looked at a lot of locations, and at the end of the day, we really wanted to be part of the Downtown. However it comes (together), we want to be part of that dynamic.”

Lisa Thurrell in new studio space

Lisa Thurrell, co-artistic director of Kanopy Dance, gestures to where large video screens will be installed in the dance company's eventual new studio space.

So the longtime dance company is remodeling a former coffee shop at 329 W. Mifflin St. to serve as the new Kanopy Center for Modern and Contemporary Dance.

Along with two dance studios, an office for an in-house physical therapist, dressing rooms and a costume shop, it will be outfitted with state-of-the-art technology to artistically connect Kanopy with the world.

Robert Cleary with panel of dance floor

Kanopy Center for Modern and Contemporary Dance co-artistic director Robert Cleary carries a piece of flooring designed to absorb weight and pressure inside the dance company’s new location at 329 W. Mifflin St. The special flooring for dancers was removed from Kanopy's former studios on State Street. 

The technology piece is a lesson from the pandemic — one that many arts organizations explored over the past year as artists discovered how they can expand their outreach and innovate with online and streaming tools.

Architect James McFadden, whose projects include rehabilitation of the Machinery Row building on Williamson Street, has embraced that concept, by designing Kanopy’s main dance studio to be soundproof (there are apartments above), adding high-tech track lighting and, of course, large video monitors.

Kanopy Dance students on Zoom

Kanopy Dance students performed virtually during the pandemic. Technology will be a big piece of instruction and performance for Kanopy going forward. 

The $115,000 renovation is being supported by a $50,000 capital campaign, Voeltz said. Donors who give $450 or more at will have their names displayed on a donor wall in the lobby.

Virtual doors

Kanopy plans to hold its summer dance workshops both in person and online, and hopes to return to the live stage in late 2021 with its “Winter Fantasia” (last year’s “Winter Fantasia” was presented online).

But currently, all of its classes are being taught virtually.

Exterior of new Kanopy Center

The new Kanopy Center for Modern and Contemporary Dance at 329 W. Mifflin St. is located next to the Madison Opera Center and close to the Overture Center for the Arts.

And that has opened the door to film projects, live online performances and long-distance collaborations with instructors — who didn’t have to travel to share their knowledge with Kanopy dancers.

“One of the benefits of the learning curve that came out of this,” explained Kanopy co-artistic director Lisa Thurrell, “was that we can have virtual learning with our guest artists out of New York and Chicago more year-round now, rather than on a more limited basis.”

Future dressing room at Kanopy Center

A future dressing room for dancers at the Kanopy Center for Modern and Contemporary Dance serves as a temporary storage space for components of a floating floor system at the center’s new location at 329 W. Mifflin St.

“The students can be getting this high-caliber (training), not only with the faculty here, but also with our colleagues around the nation,” she said. “That will just layer it up in terms of the excitement of what these students will be offered. It won’t take the place of in-person — we’ll still bring artists in — but I think it will enhance and invigorate. We can use the virtual aspect to make the program better.”

The idea of a Zoom dance class was initially a hard sell for Thurrell. But over time, she learned it can work. And she’s already envisioning how streaming classes can broaden the company’s outreach to underserved communities across the state.

New space

The new studio space is located along a stretch of West Mifflin anchored by the Overture Center for the Arts, Central Library, and the Madison Opera Center. The first-floor location makes an easy drop-off spot for parents bringing their children to dance class, Thurrell said, and visitors can park in a rear parking lot owned by Madison Opera, so their parking fees benefit the arts.

Floating floor system along wall

Components of a floating floor system await installation inside the Kanopy Center for Modern and Contemporary Dance’s new location at 329 W. Mifflin St. From left are co-artistic director Robert Cleary, company spokesperson Susanne Voeltz and architect Jamie McFadden of McFadden & Company. 

And there are big pluses for dancers: The studio space is free from large pillars. And ceilings are high — not like in Kanopy’s old space, where dancers had to practice doing lifts under skylights because the regular ceiling was too low.

There are vast windows for natural light, plus curtains that will be installed to close when it’s time for classes, rehearsals or filming for video.

“I honestly think it’s going to be part of the industry,” Kanopy co-artistic director Robert Cleary said of the exchange of ideas, instruction and artistry through virtual platforms. “The arts are all going to incorporate what we’ve learned (from the pandemic) in the future.”

“The students can be getting this high-caliber (training), not only with the faculty here, but also with our colleagues around the nation.”

Lisa Thurrell, co-artistic director for Kanopy Dance, on the center's new virtual learning possibilities


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