January 2017 Spotlight: Sisseton Arts Council + Thodos Dance Chicago

Sisseton Arts Council in Sisseton, South Dakota presented Thodos Dance Chicago in November 2016.

This Arts Midwest Touring Fund supported engagement featured a public performance and workshops showcasing different styles of dance, including traditional Dakota dances.

“Thodos Dance Chicago was the perfect company to introduce professional dance to our small, rural community. People could relate easily to the story line of “A Light in the Dark” in the first act, and the second act exposed them to the art and athleticism of contemporary dance. It was wonderful!” — Sandi Jaspers, Sisseton Arts Council

Audiences in the small town of Sisseton (population of 2,500) and others from Robert County (population of 10,000 with 1/3 members of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribe) were engaged a meaningful experience with dance. It was the first fully-staged, professional dance performance for the Sisseton Arts Council. The local school added a performing arts center five years ago that has a suitable stage and technical potential for the presentation of dance. Thodos Dance Chicago performed “A Light in the Dark: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan,” a story ballet based on the relationship between the student and teacher. The work was co-choreographed by Artistic Director Melissa Thodos and Broadway legend Ann Reinking with the score by Bruce Wolosoff. During the company’s visit connections were made with the students from Tiospa Zina Tribal School and Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribal College. It was an exchange between Native American dance and contemporary dance with students and company members demonstrating their dance styles. Thodos Dance Chicago received a welcome reception at Tribal Headquarters that featured hoop dancer Starr Chief Eagle. This populations attendance at the public performance reflected how these community engagement activities impacted the community.

Unfortunately, the momentum of the opening day of the planned residency came to a halt with the first major blizzard of the season hit and shut down area schools who were to work with the company the next day. Everyone involved was disappointed but sometimes these unforeseen circumstances can happen—especially with the unpredictable Midwest weather. Fortunately the work had begun prior to the artist’s visit as teachers introduced the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, some students learned sign language, and a study guide generated discussions about people living with disabilities. Another barrier was the lack of technical expertise but the Council was able to turn this into a growth opportunity for the community. They worked with the school technical adviser and the director of lighting at the South Dakota State University to offer a technical workshop at the Sisseton Performing Arts Center using Thodos Dance Chicago’s technical rider as the teaching tool. It had a powerful impact on the high school technical crew who worked alongside the professionals from Thodos Dance Chicago and received hands-on experience with lighting and sound equipment. The high school technical crew is excited to put their new skills to use with other visiting professional artists.

“I learned how to use the equipment that we’ve never used before and new ways of setting lights on the stage. I hope to be able to use these new skills in future performances.” — Noah Tasa, student technician at the performing arts center

The mission of Sisseton Arts Council is to build an appreciation and awareness of the arts by recognizing their resources and promoting cultural enrichment. The organization had previously been a host community for another of Arts Midwest programs, Arts Midwest World Fest. Their involvement in Arts Midwest World Fest gave them a model and foundation to approach this engagement. It was the largest production budget the Council has ever taken on and funding from Arts Midwest Touring Fund was critical in carrying out the engagement. Other annual community events the Council presents are a week-long residency with Missoual Children’s Theatre with a cast of more than 60 students from kindergarten to high school and Holiday Harmonies, a concert featuring local talent and benefits the Sisseton Food Pantry.

The Artistic Director Melissa Thodos founded the Thodos Dance Chicago in 1992 with the mission to promote contemporary dance as a cultural activity in the local community and throughout the United States through performance, creation of new works, and education, including audience development. Reaching young minds through dance education is vital to the work of the company. They do this by reaching a variety of K-12 youths and university students. They performance a diverse array of works by renown American choreographers, as well as ensemble members who create highly-charged, illuminating world premiers every year in the Company’s acclaimed New Dances choreography series.

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