When it comes to dance, not all but certainly most roads lead through Akron.
For that, thank The National Center for Choreography, a now five-year-old and still under-appreciated institution in the cultural heart of the city.
Only the second organization of its kind in the nation, the NCC, housed at the University of Akron and seeded by the Knight Foundation, already has served as the laboratory of creation for any number of new dance works seen on or coming to stages around the world. Indeed, in the context of contemporary dance, its role is difficult to overstate.
“A lot more people have a touchpoint here than most people realize,” says Christy Bolingbroke, executive and artistic director of the NCC, founded in 2015. “We’re fine being the best-kept secret in Akron.”
It’s not a secret elsewhere. In the dance world, the Akron NCC is one of two organizations of its kind. The other is the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University.
Pam Young, director of the presenting series DanceCleveland and a co-founder and board member of the NCC, says many choreographers and newer dance companies – a majority of whom operate on a project basis – regard a residency in Akron as a “golden” opportunity to go through the long, resource-intensive process of dance creation.
Perennially strapped for studio time in crowded and more expensive larger cities, they regard the NCC’s seven state-of-the-art studios, access to E.J. Thomas Hall and professionals, central location in the Midwest and connections to a vast array of research institutions across Northeast Ohio as potentially life-changing luxuries.
“We can give them whatever they need,” Young said. “[Bolingbroke] has been able to help people bottom up and top down.”
Bolingbroke, a former director of marketing at the Mark Morris Dance Group and deputy director for advancement at the Oberlin Dance Collective, said she views the NCC in Akron as a unique entity in the arts ecosystem.
Her job, she said, is to help choreographers settle on and at least partially realize their visions by arranging for whatever dancers, designers and other experts or materials a project may require. She takes on practical matters so the artists can concentrate on being creative. In one instance, she herself filmed dancers on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, logging what she called “the two hardest days I’ve ever worked in my career.”
“We’re trying to disrupt the lottery system of support,” Bolingbroke said, alluding to the hit-or-miss method by which most artists in the U.S. seek and receive funding.
“Artists don’t always know what they’re going to make when they come here, but they have a hypothesis…We try to fill in the gaps and bridge around them.”
All this has only become more valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of late, the NCC has been a lifeline, a rare place where dancers can continue to create, teach and refine within the safety of a virus “bubble.”
The NCC Akron has become, “a place where craft is honed and creativity has space to breathe,” says Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow of Summit County. “What [Bolingbroke] has achieved in a few short years is to continue to add to Akron’s rich history of innovation.”
All it takes to see evidence of the center’s efficacy, Young says, is a simple stroll through the space, where photos of past residents, many of whom have gone on to dance stardom and major awards, line the walls.
One particular point of pride is choreographer Kyle Abraham, an NCC Akron alum whose company appeared on the DanceCleveland series in 2018. Bolingbroke also happily pointed to three current or former NCC partners based in Akron: choreographer Dominic Moore-Dunson, visual artist Micah Kraus, and technology specialist Bill Myers.
Even for those who have yet to break through, having an NCC residency or project partnership on the resume serves as “a huge seal of approval,” Young says, a sign that this is an artist to watch.
“The work they’re doing is so amazing, and they all had residences at NCC Akron,” Young said, pointing to recent Bessie Award winners. “It’s had a huge impact.”
At its five-year anniversary, the organization Bolingbroke built has more irons in the fire, more to look forward to, than ever.
A recent grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has expanded the NCC’s mission considerably, inspiring Bolingbroke to launch a dance administration think-tank and plan a national summit on the topic in Akron. She’s also hard at work on a publishing project, corralling authors, editors and other contributors with the goal of producing a book by next summer and two books every year after that.
From the beginning, the NCC aspired to put this region on the dance map. At its founding, Young says, the goal seemed far-fetched.
Now, given all that the NCC has accomplished and has on the horizon, the idea seems not just realistic but likely. Still, Bolingbroke said the NCC after five years feels like a startup, an organization whose best days remain far in the future.
“We’re here for the long haul,” she says. “We’ve barely gotten started.”
Zachary Lewis is a freelance journalist in Cleveland. He is the former classical music and dance critic of The Plain Dealer.
Photos: Dale Dong/Dale Dong Photography
Editor’s note: Devil Strip Digital Manager Sonia Potter worked at the National Center for Choreography until November 2020. She was not involved in the commissioning or reporting of this story.