Anderson Dancers mark 30th

Milestone: The oldest professional modern dance company in Maryland is to perform at BMA this weekend.

October 23, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Skill and creativity have helped Eva Anderson Dancers Ltd. grow into a well-known and respected modern dance group in the Baltimore-Washington region.

But supporters say persistence has been just as important, as the company begins its 30th season.

"I just kept doing it," said Anderson, a Columbia choreographer who has been the creative and administrative force behind the company for three decades.

"It seems like artists that are successful are those that didn't quit."

The Eva Anderson Dancers - the oldest professional modern dance company in Maryland - will celebrate its milestone with performances at Baltimore Museum of Art on Saturday and Sunday.

The concerts will feature some of the group's signature works and a new piece choreographed by Anderson.

Using modern dance styles with an emphasis on African-American music and themes, the company holds recitals regularly in Baltimore and Columbia, performs at schools, universities and festivals and appears at events across the country.

The dancers, who are paid for rehearsals and performances, are a dedicated group.

Anderson estimates that about 50 performers have spent years, even decades, with the company.

"The meaning she gives her dances is endearing," said Yvette Shipley-Perkins, one of the troupe's original members who danced with Anderson for 20 years.

Shipley-Perkins, an office manager for a dental practice in Baltimore, stopped dancing more than eight years ago, but she and two other founding members will return to the stage this weekend.

Shipley-Perkins remembers having "a gut reaction" the first time Anderson taught her. "I feel that Eva and I connected," she said. "All of her works were almost as important to me as they were to her."

"We understand each other, and we feed off each other," Anderson said of her small, tightly knit company. "There is a cohesiveness and a balance, which I like."

Anderson leaves sections of her works open for improvisation and encourages the dancers to put their signatures on the pieces.

As new dancers join and take on roles that used to belong to others, the pieces and the troupe grow in an organic way, she said.

Two of the current dancers joined at the group's beginning, when Anderson taught modern dance as part of an after-school program at Dunbar High School in Baltimore.

After a few years, Anderson told the young people that if they wanted to continue, they were going to have to put in the time and learn the techniques to become serious dancers.

In 1980, she took her dancers and formed an independent nonprofit organization, Eva Anderson Dancers Ltd., which also uses the name Baltimore Dance Theater.

A dancer trained in classical, modern and African styles, Anderson earned a bachelor's degree in dance and a master's degree in education at Adelphi University on Long Island, N.Y.

She led companies in North Carolina and New York before her husband was transferred to Columbia for his work in 1973.

She said she was eager to start a company here. "I always knew this is what I wanted to do," she said.

In the 1980s, the Eva Anderson Dancers got a morale boost from traveling to Germany, Austria and Italy, Anderson said.

In those countries, she said, it was clear that the audience was most interested in the dances that incorporated African-American themes.

After returning home, the company created performances using African music, spirituals and African-American dances from the 1690s through the hip-hop era.

Anderson also created the Scott Joplin Festival, which featured commissioned works by guest choreographers and pieces by Joplin, as well as lectures at the Howard County Public Library. The festival continued until 1993.

Anderson has taught dance at several colleges and teaches master classes at Howard Community College. She also teaches at Howard County Arts Center and the Columbia Association's athletic clubs.

She does not, however, have a dance school of her own, which is one way other dance companies support themselves. Instead, she has relied on funding from state and county sources, grants and donations to keep her group going.

Anderson has seen her budget rise to a high of $100,000 in the early 1990s and then fall again to less than $50,000 today. She has seen other area dance companies fold as audiences proved to be more supportive of visual arts and music.

And she has seen the local arts community come to understand that the audience is not large enough to support unlimited growth.

"We found what we can survive on and still do good work," she said.

And she seems fine with that.

"I am doing it because I am an artist who wants to work," she said. "I am doing what I want to do."

"The energy and ... her personal charisma is just really inspiring," said Colleen West, director of the Howard County Arts Council. The dance company is now in residence at the council's Howard County Arts Center, after having used several locations in Baltimore.

"She is just full of passion and love for modern dance," West said. "That is what has kept her going."

The Eva Anderson Dancers Ltd. will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday and at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art auditorium on Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets. Tickets are $15 and available at the door. Information: 410-997-3899.

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