How Dancers’ Workshop is distinguishing Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as a destination for dance
Like many others who are drawn to the rugged beauty of Jackson Hole, with its world-famous skiing and other outdoor sports, Babs Case arrived for what she thought would be a temporary visit and ended up staying indefinitely.
A seasoned arts administrator who was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, Case headed out west to teach a series of workshops in Wyoming through the Lincoln Center Institute. Before going to Jackson—a ski town with a year-round population of only 10,000—she had heard about a job opening at Dancers’ Workshop, a beloved local dance studio that offered a youth dance program with occasional performances by its adult faculty members. Sixteen years later, Case has built that organization into a dance oasis that stands out as a model, even among its larger urban-based counterparts.
However, back in 1999 when she first arrived, Case quickly realized the nonprofit was undergoing major staffing and directional changes. There was enough upheaval that she nearly turned around and left. But she could see an upside—for Dancers’ Workshop and for her own ambition.
Part of her attraction to Jackson was the plan to build the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, which was completed in 2007, but at the time was in its infancy. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll probably be dead by the time they build that building, but who knows?’” she says. She became a driving force behind the project, and now Dancers’ Workshop occupies the second floor of the educational wing of the facility, with five dance studios there and one in a building next door. The campus also includes a 500-seat theater where DW hosts New York City Ballet MOVES (the touring group of New York City Ballet) every summer, as well as companies like Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Pilobolus, Gallim Dance and Elisa Monte Dance.
Case began bringing dance companies to Jackson while the Center Theater was still under construction. Elisa Monte Dance and the Richard Alston Dance Company were among the first to visit, performing in the Jackson Hole High School theater. “I’ve never been afraid to talk to anybody,” says Case, who was the founding director of the Center for the Arts in Stuart, Florida, for 12 years. Over the course of her career, she’s been the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Florida and Wyoming Fellowship awards for choreography.
“I’ve always just started with who I want to bring,” she says. “I don’t even see myself as a presenter. I see myself as someone who loves dance, and so I try to choose artists whose work I love.” Regular visits to New York keep her in touch with what is going on in the broader dance world.
“Babs reminded me of the impulses that were everywhere in the early days of my career,” says Bill T. Jones, who first visited Jackson with his company in 2014. “She was out there in the mountains, and yet she had a hunger for new dance work.”
“She really treated us like we were guests,” he says. “She introduced us to her friends; she cooked for us; she made us see what a residency could be in this rich community.” All the outdoor adventures made the experience feel “like going to summer camp,” yet “there was a seriousness in the theater,” Jones says. “It was a lovely theater. There were talented people around. It felt as if we were working in a place where work got done.”
During that residency, Jones and his company developed the new work Analogy/Dora: Tramontane (co-commissioned by Dancers’ Workshop, Peak Performances at Montclair State University and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), which had its premiere this summer in both New Jersey and Jackson. This was DW’s second foray into co-commissioning, after similarly supporting the creation of Gallim Dance’s Fold Here in 2013.
Teachers and Artists
Rachel Holmes first visited Dancers’ Workshop in 2006 while on tour with Elisa Monte Dance. “I fell in love with the beauty of Jackson and the kinds of resources it had to offer artists for being such a small town,” she says. “I instantly wanted to be Babs’ friend, and I would spend my free time out of the dance studio making art with her in her art studio. After living in New York City for 12 years dancing—working two or three jobs at a time and struggling to make ends meet—I was ready to make a big change in my life.”
She began visiting every year to teach, perform or help with educational residencies elsewhere in Wyoming. When the school director position opened at Dancers’ Workshop, she made the plunge full-time.
Francesca Romo, formerly of Gallim Dance, also now resides in Jackson. Both Holmes and Romo perform with the Dancers’ Workshop resident company, Contemporary Dance Wyoming (CDW). The six members of the ensemble serve as core instructors in the school and lead outreach programs for school children in rural areas of Wyoming.
With one or two dedicated concerts in Jackson per year, CDW often performs at local art events and tours around the region. It also participates in shared showings with visiting companies, and this past summer former Gallim dancer Jonathan Wyndham created a new work for it. “It’s powerful right now,” says Case. “The work is amazing.”
The Dancers’ Workshop youth program serves about 275 students each year and includes more than 50 classes per week in a variety of styles. (The studio now has seven full-time staff members and a total of 22 instructors, many of whom are part-time.) Dedicated middle and high school dancers have the option to audition for the Junior Repertory Company, which involves a more rigorous training schedule, additional performance opportunities and master classes with visiting companies.
As vital as the youth program is to Dancers’ Workshop’s mission, the real potential for growth is in the market for adults. Case started building that enrollment when she realized that in a small town there would always be a limited number of children to participate in dance programs. “There are so many athletic adults in this community who have the power to buy a ticket, who have the power to sign up for a class,” she says. “It also expands our audience base, because now we have a large group of adults who are interested in learning about dance.”
The program includes 30 to 35 classes per week in modern, ballet, hip hop and a number of ballroom styles, and it currently serves about 450 people. Most popular among the fitness offerings are Pilates classes.
All in all, the organization is perhaps best described as an ecosystem in which the school, the artists (both local and visiting) and the patrons all serve to challenge, inspire and elevate one another. And yet for those outside it, Jackson remains an unexpected dance destination. Says Case: “I’ll never forget Richard Alston saying to me, ‘This is such an odd and wonderful experience. We’re touring to L.A., Dallas, New York…and Jackson Hole.’” DT
Garnet Henderson is a dancer, choreographer and freelance writer based in New York City.
Photos from top: Thinkstock; (6) by Franziska Strauss; by Brent Blue, by Jeffrey Kaphan, both courtesy of Dancers’ Workshop