Choreography of Light and Glass — W.Va's Professional Dance Company
The West Virginia Dance Company, based out of Beckley, W.Va., often performs dances that tell stories about social or cultural topics in the Appalachian region. One of their recent performance pieces, https://vimeo.com/297156785/e3a17ea8e1?fbclid=IwAR2c4QK4mhSarO5m1zPE7ea6izsZJjzIUMdDm_30uaWTBJ8x88JsdbWPjiQ" target="_blank">“Catching Light,” choreographed by Toneta Akers-Toler, was inspired by West Virginia glassmaker Ron Hinkle. In a special report exploring folkways traditions, as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Jordan Lovejoy profiled the choreographer and her work.
Akers-Toler points out that, like dancers, glassmakers often have to move quickly and with precise intention to create their pieces before the glass cools and hardens.
A local of Raleigh County in southern West Virginia, Akers-Toler is the founder and managing artistic director of the West Virginia Dance Company, the only professional touring dance company in the state.
A few years ago, Akers-Toler’s son, Holden, gave her a glass vase made by Hinkle. Later, she met Hinkle, who mentioned the process of making glass is similar to her own craft. “He said, ‘so many people have said it’s like we’re dancing.’ And he said, ‘I’ve always wanted to, you know, see a dance about that.’ And I went ‘oh!’”
“Catching Light” is not the only piece Akers-Toler has created based on some aspect of West Virginia’s culture or history. She’s choreographed pieces that explore labor history and the West Virginia Mine Wars, literature by writers from the area like Pearl S. Buck, the struggles of addiction, and even the relationship between people and the environment through modern dance.
“People laugh at me for saying this, but I wanted to share dance with my people, and I felt there was a need here. We had lots of excellent dance schools, but we didn’t have any really thing intensely in modern dance at all, and we didn’t have a professional touring dance company.”
Modern Dance in West Virginia
But there are challenges to running a modern dance company in southern West Virginia. Akers-Toler’s company travels widely to rural communities throughout the region, performing in a variety of spaces. Because there are not the same resources that larger cities have, the company often manages its own light design, sound production, costuming, promotion, booking, and grant writing, which is a similar situation for many other artists in rural areas.
While some may have seen building a modern dance company in a heavily rural space like West Virginia as a long shot, Akers-Toler embraced the unique challenges and rewards of the work: “I personally feel that I have had more of an opportunity to grow and to learn because I am here. I don’t know. I just feel like I would — and a lot of us — would not have gotten the opportunities to grow as artists if we weren't here. Because the struggle also brings knowledge.”
Being an artist in West Virginia also comes with other unique benefits like the low cost of living, according to dancer Donald Laney, a long-time friend of Akers-Toler and co-artistic director of the West Virginia Dance Company. “Where else can I make a living in the arts and not pick up any other jobs? Most people don’t think West Virginia would have something like this.”
Laney said telling a story through dance is similar to the process a writer uses, but instead of selecting words to tell a story, choreographers carefully choose unique movements. “We train our bodies, so our physical, our bodies tell stories,” Laney said.
“Catching Light” is an example of one such story. On stage, six dancers wear glistening, iridescent pants to give the appearance of glass, and their bodies move through yoga-type shapes and angles to suggest glass transitioning from liquid to solid.
The score was composed by Dr. Richard Grimes and West Virginia storyteller and musician Adam Booth, who also narrated part of the dance. “Then, we roll the glass on a slab of iron or carbon. This is called marvering, and it is where the glass begins to take form.”
As Booth speaks, the dancers swirl into different directions across the stage, flinging pieces of flowy white fabric to represent the chaotic movement of hot, liquid glass as the spinning blowpipe pulls it from the fire.
The Human Element in Sharing Art
One of the key fascinations Toneta Akers-Toler had with glass was its human element: “In order to get it to live and become a bigger structure, the human being actually breathes into the art form, so part of their chemistry is always in that piece of art.”
The glass’ transformation from solid to liquid to solid again could only be performed by the body and breath of a craftsperson. Similarly, a dance only comes to life by the body and breath of the dancers, especially as they perform the story for an audience.
According to Akers-Toler, the audience brings the final crucial element to the dance. Without them, there would be no story to share, and modern dance is a shared storytelling event between dancer and spectator. “They would have a certain feeling about the whole thing. But at least 50% where they can bring their own experiences into watching it, and then they can have their own story.”
At a performance in February earlier this year in Lewisburg, W.Va., audience member Ethan Serr said that’s what brought him to come see “Love of Power vs. Power of Love,” one of the dance company’s latest pieces. “I know it's very, a narrative, it's very expressive. And so I guess I'm just trying to be swept along, swept along for the journey.”
“Just to watch it, to see the form, to see people of our state be out pushing this art form. It’s just part of capturing that magic and love of the art,” said Marcus Fiorvante, who came to watch the performance.
Despite the cancellation of their season because of the pandemic, the West Virginia Dance Company still maintains their storytelling and communicating with audiences through some digital performances online, and Akers-Toler says they hope to resume their in-person performances as soon as it is safe.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.