For some artists, such as painters and writers, living in a beautiful, rural area can provide an environment that enhances their work. If you’re an accomplished dancer living in a rural place, however, your opportunities to perform are very limited.
That’s why dancer Kara Starkweather, who lives on the Mendocino Coast, created her own dance troupe.
“I think one thing that makes us unique as a group is we have all chosen to live remotely in a natural, beautiful community versus a large city. It’s a very different experience and I think in all art forms you’re bringing your experience to the table in what you’re producing,” said Starkweather, director of the Mendocino Dance Project.
For the second year in a row, Calistoga was treated to a rare dance performance by the company June 1 at the Calistoga Art Center. Rare in the sense that the town doesn’t host many dance performances, and rare in that the troupe providing that experience is comprised entirely of female dancers, most of whom also happen to be mothers.
The performance was called “Spectator,” and was inspired by our physical responses to different situations depending on who is present, and in different spaces and situations. In other words, body language.
“It’s this whole idea of spectating. Watching, being watched and how that changes your physical response,” Starkweather said.
The performance, which lasted a little more than an hour, was a fluid and polished progression of often intricate, yet physically demanding movements in which dancers interacted, retreated, and interacted again.
One might think Martha Graham meets David Byrne.
Starkweather describes the troupe’s style as contemporary. Her own background in dance is long and varied, with everything from tap and jazz to Western African dance and hip hop. She also toured with Flynn Creek Circus and dances with the internationally acclaimed Bandaloop from Oakland.
“It’s hard for me to put a label on it because I feel like all those experiences hodge-podge into one, which is what I see from contemporary (dance) in general,” she said.
Starkweather and the troupe members live on the Mendocino Coast where there isn’t much (or zero) opportunity to pursue their passion versus say, living in a large city. So she began teaching.
“Living in Mendocino there really wasn’t another option if I wanted to dance,” she said.
The vision, or mission of the troupe, is to have dance be an accessible art form in rural communities. The group has performed in Calistoga and Willits.
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Starkweather also started teaching in the Mendocino-Fort Bragg area schools and conducts workshops for kids while on tour.
Starkweather moved to Mendocino in 2002 after having a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend, now husband, and then getting pregnant. And she loves living there, she said.
It wasn’t necessarily her intention to form a dance company, but in 2015 things started getting serious, teaching her contemporary dance classes.
“For the first time I had a group of people I was teaching that were consistently coming to classes, I had a solid group and we started doing a show every year,” Starkweather said.
Two of the dancers have been with the group since the beginning, and there has been some ebb and flow with the makeup of the troupe since then; they had a male dancer for two years, but he has since moved on.
Though the group is not exclusively for women, Starkweather said she enjoys that it comes from a mildly feminist point of view.
“It offers a different experience. We have a group of women lifting each other, it’s not the man lifting the woman. There’s a certain cord of strength in that,” she said, however, “It’s not a conscious choice. Typically, more women dance than men, especially the farther you get away from the Bay Area. It’s always a struggle to find good male dancers.”
Up until recently, everyone in the group was also a mother. Now, one is not. Which brings challenges with scheduling and taking a weekend off to go on the road.
“I like to talk about that because I hope it inspires other women to pursue their creative passions and also be strong and healthy and use their physicality as a means of expression through art,” Starkweather said.
Other challenges involve finding a venue to host them (theaters easily charge $1,000 per day, Starkweather said) and setting up their own lighting and sound.
Starkweather directs all the choreography but it’s a very collaborative process with the group as a whole. Often she will bring an idea or topic to the table and the group will provide input, she said.
The work itself is usually content driven. A topic last year explored personal experiences of homelessness, and another fun and whimsical piece was created where dancers danced on a 10-foot tall metal framed chair.