Against the drone of a bagpipe and the lilting of an Irish fiddle, Erin McNulty’s body expands and contracts in the familiar rhythm of a crashing wave. The hem of her gauzy black dress flutters at her ankles as she moves through the airy Corinth barn that serves as her stage.
These images from a rehearsal video offer a glimpse of what’s to come this weekend during the inaugural Junction Dance Festival, a three-day celebration of dance and dancers in the Upper Valley that was founded and directed by Elizabeth Kurylo. Delayed since 2020 by the pandemic, the festival runs Friday, July 22, through Sunday, July 24, in White River Junction at Briggs Opera House, White River Ballet Academy, Open Door Integrative Wellness, Northern Stage and Veterans Park.
The diverse lineup of events includes workshops and performances in styles ranging from aerial dance to Argentinean tango to club dance to musical theater, plus film screenings.
Most of the 10 free workshops are geared toward dancers of all ages and levels, so attendees need no previous experience. In a workshop with ballet academy director Jackie Stanton-Conley, for example, festivalgoers can dip their toes into ballet for beginners. Another workshop, sponsored by Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts and led by dance artist Emmanuèle Phuon and illustrator Pascal Lemaître, will explore the intersection of dance, nature and writing as participants observe and emulate trees, tracing them on paper and with their bodies.
On Saturday and Sunday, more than 40 artists will perform, including Vermont Dance Alliance founder Hanna Satterlee; Neva Cockrell, director of Loom Ensemble, an interdisciplinary dance-theater troupe based in Vermont, Dubai and New York City; and the Aseemkala Initiative, a Lebanon, N.H.-based collective that explores social justice and health care inequity through “global traditional dances,” according to the website.
Performances are free or have a suggested donation, except for Sunday’s ChoreoLab show at Briggs Opera House, which costs $15. McNulty and two other artists from the Vermont-New Hampshire area, Claire Cook and Zoey November, will premiere choreographed works that they have been developing and rehearsing for the past two months in the festival’s ChoreoLab residency.
McNulty’s contemporary dance piece draws inspiration from the pagan myth of the Morrigan, an Irish goddess often associated with war, death and fate. The Plainfield, N.H., resident combined research, writing, meditation and improvisation to create a movement poem that explores what she calls the Morrigan’s “shape-shifting” qualities.
A complicated figure who embodies fear, vulnerability, power and sexuality, the Morrigan is “very tied to the landscape, as well as the gods,” McNulty said. “She’s this very real-feeling figure and, because of that, has been interpreted in so many different ways. And it really reminds me of what it’s like to be a female — you’re not always in control of how you’re interpreted.”
Supporting local dancers such as the ChoreoLab participants, both financially and through heightened publicity, is one of the primary missions of the fledgling festival, director Kurylo said. A French native who danced professionally in Europe before coming to the U.S. in 1980, according to her website, Kurylo has since danced with William Chaison’s dance company in New Jersey, the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble in Hanover, N.H., and What’s Written Within in Edgartown, Mass.
In an industry where the costs of developing and mounting an original production were steep even before the pandemic, Kurylo said, it is challenging to make connections with other artists and find venues in which to perform. The festival can provide both.
“Our goal is to bring together a network, to build a network of dancers, and to expose the dancers to the public and let the public view all different kinds of modes of dancing,” Kurylo said. “There’s quite a lot going on, not only in the Upper Valley but in the Twin States.
“One of the things that is important is we want the event to be accessible to everyone,” she continued, “not only to the people that can afford to pay $30 a ticket.”
On Saturday afternoon at Briggs Opera House, the Burlington-based Vermont Dance Alliance will present eight short films that premiered in February. Alliance executive director MC DeBelina said film can be an effective way for people unfamiliar with or skeptical of dance to explore the art form, and each selection has direct ties to the Green Mountain State.
“A lot of it is filmed right here, either in the winter or the summer or the fall. And so you see familiar things that you can connect to,” DeBelina said. “It really does, I think, allow all types of viewers a way in,” including children, she noted.
Vermont Dance Alliance members were eager to participate in the new festival largely because of its focus on uplifting local dancers, DeBelina said. Though small states like Vermont may not draw as much attention as cultural hubs such as New York City and Boston, she believes rural communities do have a creative advantage: They can transmit art in new and innovative ways.
“In Vermont, you have to take the art and bring it to the community, bring it to the people, and you might need to think about different places to dance in,” DeBelina said. “That’s a huge benefit of Vermont — we have the outdoors; we have beautiful snow; we have gorgeous summers; we have outdoor stages; we have nooks and crannies everywhere that we can put dance into.”
McNulty believes that the Junction Dance Festival has taken that philosophy to heart, creating an experience that is truly community-based. Festival events will take place throughout the downtown area.
“It’s kind of taking over this whole town in a very intrinsic way, sort of threading into these existing spaces and animating them. That, to me, just suggests the accessibility of dance,” McNulty said. “All you need is your body.”