IN 1987, when Kathy Wildberger disbanded PATH, her Baltimore dance company, she choreographed a farewell piece, "Snakes Don't Wear Shoes." The dance, performed at the Theatre Project, was a way to shed the past and get on with the now.
It seems like Wildberger is always saying goodbye to friends, family, schools and Baltimore -- and hello again. On a cool September morning, she is in a dance studio tucked into an odd Ellicott City cul-de-sac. She is rehearsing the elegant and elusive "Snakes," with three other members of PATH, reborn in 1988.
Wildberger is preparing for the opening performance of the Out on a Limb Dance Festival at the Baltimore School for the Arts Saturday and Sunday. The festival is a way to do many things, Wildberger says. For one, it gives PATH and other local dancers and choreographers a rare opportunity to perform in Baltimore.
The inaugural performance also creates a scholarship fund that will enable gifted young dancers to study outside of Baltimore. The award is named for the late Jeff Duncan, a Baltimore dancer, choreographer and Wildberger's mentor. The performance is also Wildberger's thank you to the School for the Arts, from which her daughter, Maya, graduated last year.
For Wildberger, separations and reunions form a theme that underscores her life, work and certainly this weekend's concert, when she performs Duncan's "Diminishing Landscape."
Wildberger and Duncan grew apart after a fruitful and stormy artistic relationship at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where they taught and danced with the Impetus company in the 1970s. It was an inevitable parting: the student from the teacher.
Years later, Wildberger heard Duncan was ill and sought him out. When she first saw him asleep in a hospital bed, "I just ran away," she says. "It was so hard to see this man look like this: a beautiful body turned ugly like that." But Wildberger returned. "I really had to connect there. There was so much I didn't get" from him.
Soon, Wildberger was a regular visitor to Duncan's home, where she sat on his bed and scrutinized videos of his dances. Fanatical about dance even unto death, Duncan taught her "La Mesa del Brujo," one of his mystically-inclined works, step by step. That dance, others, his paintings and sundry possessions were Duncan's parting gift to his student.
"I was scared I would get cold feet," Wildberger says of her responsibility to keep Duncan's work alive. But she mastered her fear and "La Mesa." Shortly before Duncan died of AIDS in 1989, she performed it at a concert dedicated to him at the Theatre Project. It was nearly a decade after Duncan himself premiered in "La Mesa" on his 50th birthday at New York City's Dance Theater Workshop.
Wildberger often speaks of Duncan in the present tense, and must correct herself. "He pushed me. He made me understand the beauty of standing still, which is something I don't like to do. He made me be still. He taught me to dance and not look at yourself from the outside," she says.
This weekend's program also includes the premiere of "Baby Face." The duet, performed by Wildberger and PATH veteran Sandra Lacy, is about the separation that must come about between mother and daughter figures. Maya recently left home for college in New York state. The dance incorporates tape recordings made by Maya when she was a child. Today, her verbal directives on a clunky old recorder -- "Fast forward," "Rewind" and "Stop" -- cues for her mother's choreography.
From Wildberger's perch, just being involved in dance in Baltimore is about the dilemma of leaving and returning. After working at UMBC for seven years, she worked at Goucher College, where she also taught for seven years. In 1989, Wildberger left Goucher, after not receiving tenure.
In 1987, short of money, PATH folded. The next year, infused with grants, the company was resurrected. Today, PATH is without a permanent home and wanders from studio to studio and stage to stage. Wildberger must look outside of Baltimore for teaching posts and dance dates. This spring, though, she will return to UMBC to work with advanced dance students as an artist in residence.
The experience of Wildberger and PATH mirrors the plight of other area choreographers and dancers who routinely come and go. Through the Out on a Limb Festival Wildberger is defying local cultural wisdom by featuring artists who are rarely able to show Baltimore what they have. While praising the Dance on the Edge series, which brings dancers from out of town, and the impending Alvin Ailey Dance Company residency, Wildberger says, "I feel there are so may dance artists here that cannot be seen. That give up and get out. . . . So, we put ourselves out on a limb."
After this weekend's program, the Out on a Limb Festival resumes next spring. The opening performance takes place 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Schaefer Ballroom at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Admission for the Saturday performance and reception is $15. Admission for the Sunday performance is $10 for general public; $6 for students and senior citizens. Call 523-7850 for more information.