Kanopy Dance leaps forward with new instructors, space and insights into what makes art come alive

The resident company of Overture Center has turned new obstacles into opportunities for growth.
illustration of Kanopy Dancers
Illustration by Tim Burton, Photos courtesy of Kanopy Dance
Darwin Black (pictured center and bottom right) and Kanopy Dance Co. & Academy dancers

Dance, by classical definition, is movement of the body in a rhythmic way within a given space to communicate an idea or emotion. Through timing and technique, it also provides practitioners with avenues to overcome obstacles and address challenges in expressive and often beautiful ways.

For Kanopy Dance Co. & Academy, a resident company of Overture Center for the Arts, the definition has broadened over the past pandemic year to include the ability to adjust to social and economic restrictions, turning new obstacles into opportunities for growth and development.

Lisa Thurrell, Kanopy’s co-artistic director with partner Robert Cleary, says the past year has been invigorating, but by no means easy.

“Live performance is the heart and soul of any artist,” says Thurrell, who performed with the Martha Graham Dance Co. before joining Kanopy in 1995. “Our inability to do live shows and reach audiences and students has been hard on everyone.”

Teaching students virtually, while challenging, has provided Kanopy with more opportunities to extend its reach, collaborate with other companies and involve a wider array of guest artists. Revenues over the past year have declined by 50%, Thurrell admits, but the resulting rigor has led to greater flexibility and a tighter focus on the company’s goals and purpose.

It’s also allowed for the emergence of new instructors, including Academy lead instructor Darwin Black, a New Jersey native who came to Madison to teach for Madison Ballet in July 2019. By that fall, he’d become a Kanopy company member, first appearing in the October presentation of “Power & Passion.”

“Darwin Black is a deeply expressive dancer who was born with tener duende, a Spanish phrase that describes the rare talent to become the vessel for the art and allow it to be bigger than oneself,” Thurrell says. “Talented dancers are not always talented teachers, but Darwin is both.”

Black’s talents align perfectly with Kanopy’s goals of not only teaching the artistry and technique of dance, but also bringing out students’ creative spirit, bolstering their confidence and allowing them to “own” both the process and the product of their work, Thurrell says.

Black, who has a background in classical ballet, also trained with modern dance’s Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His career has taken him from the Miami Contemporary Dance Co. to the Alaska Dance Theatre, with multiple engagements in between. Black’s commitment to Kanopy includes both education and performance, and he believes there will be opportunity for more of both in the near future.

“I not only want to teach steps and [dance] vocabulary, but I also I want to teach mindfulness,” Black says. “In the words of master choreographer Ulysses Dove, ‘There’s nothing to prove and everything to share.’ ”

Black joins a roster of nine Kanopy instructors who are teaching both locally and remotely. Kanopy’s company includes members with a full spectrum of racial, gender and sexual identities who bring rich, diverse backgrounds to audiences and students. That’s a deliberate commitment, says Thurrell.

“It’s the stories of all our lives and backgrounds that move the legacy of dance forward from teacher to student,” Thurrell says. “We have wonderful choreographers and performing artists from multiple cultural traditions and we want to expose our students to the best talent possible.”

Come this summer, those lessons will be shared in a new home. A planned $100 million mixed-use construction project that will front the 300 block of State Street is displacing many established businesses, including Kanopy. The company is moving into a ground-floor space at 329 W. Mifflin St., next door to Madison Opera. The facility will be called Kanopy Center for Modern and Contemporary Dance and house both the company and the academy programs. The space, which may also host pop-up events with guest artists, will help Kanopy embrace the future, Thurrell explains.

“As a dance academy, we’re serious about what we do,” she says. “Dance is fun and engaging, but any students we teach will strive to be their best, whether as professionals or just having dance as a life avocation. In this way, I believe we teach life skills.”

Michael Muckian writes this arts and entertainment column monthly. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.