There are some things most other professional dancers never experience. The year Headwaters Dance Company performed at a venue near Chinook, they were invited by locals to the annual "nut festival"—which turned out to be a party featuring the delicacy of bull testicles. Headwaters founder and director Amy Ragsdale says it was a good time once they all relaxed into the idea of eating Rocky Mountain oysters.
Such is the life of running a professional contemporary dance company in Montana. The rarity has brought other, more obvious connections between Headwaters and the state's distinct culture and landscape. The last two years, for instance, the company's Bus Tour chauffeured audiences to site-specific performances along riverbanks, in pastures and on cliffs—an experience made possible by Ragsdale's ingenuity and Montana's wide open spaces. Despite those successes and the company's willingness to tie its work to the fabric of the state, contemporary dance can still struggle to find new audiences.
"A lot of people say they don't get it," Ragsdale says. "When I first moved here I just thought, 'It's people moving their bodies. We all have bodies, we all move—what's not to get?' Well, it turned out everything. And I think there are several reasons for this, but one of them is that I think dance is the last art to get into our school system. Music is well represented. Even visual art you get in grade school, and in high school you start to get drama. But dance is struggling and it always has been."
In 1993, when Ragsdale first came to Missoula, she and dance instructor Karen Kauffman started an in-residence program at the University of Montana called Mo-Trans. When Ragsdale took it over as an off-campus company in 2004, she changed the name to Headwaters. In its early years, especially, the company carried the torch for professional contemporary dance often without rival. It's been a place where UM dancers and others could work professionally in the community and launch their own careers.
Though dance has continued to be a hard sell, the scene has grown over the years. Headwaters dancer Joy French, for instance, started her own company, Bare Bait Dance, in 2010. Headwaters has branched out with its Bus Tour concerts, as well as the Underground Dance Studio, a biannual series held at the Headwaters Studio in Ragsdale's backyard featuring poets, dancers, actors and musicians in an intimate and inexpensive environment.
- photo courtesy of Headwaters Dance Co.
- Many Headwaters alumni will return for this weekend’s final performance, including Ashley Griffith, left, Brian Gerke, center, and Kitty Sailer, upside down. They’re pictured above in a 2009 piece along with dancer Michael Becker.
"It was selfish on my part," Ragsdale says. "As a working mom, I wasn't finding myself getting out to all the things I wanted to see in town—and there's so much. And the other part of it is that I've always loved that small, intimate salon experience. It's really different from the lighted, somewhat distant stage experience—which I also love, but it's different."
This week marks the final concert for Headwaters after more than 20 years of performing throughout the state. Ragsdale has given the decision a lot of thought. She's looking for a change. She plans to continue hosting the Underground Studio and looking for funding opportunities to produce shows in a way that she can pay dancers a livable wage.
"I think we've been at it a long time," she says. "And dance has grown—but not hugely. On the other hand, there's more dance happening here that is locally generated than there was before, by far. I feel encouraged with Bare Bait and the university, which has encouraged dance majors to produce their own work out in the community."
The final show, aptly titled Beginnings and Endings, is a reunion of sorts. Headwaters alumni such as Anya Cloud, Brian Gerke, Kitty Sailer and Amy Sennett return to Missoula for a 90-minute concert presented in three parts.
The third part is a new piece by Ragsdale, "Lay Bare the Bones," for which she asked former company members to create 20-second solos. It's a structure that aims to show how dance is created from the inside out, as the dancers take the solo pieces and re-craft them in front of the audience.
The piece comes out of Ragsdale's continued frustration with and determination for connecting audiences to contemporary dance. It's an issue she hopes to tackle in other ways—though she knows she's not alone.
"That's why I called it Beginnings and Endings," she says. "You know, maybe I'm starting to wind down but these dancers are starting to crank up and some of them have already been cranked up and doing amazing things. So we are performing these pieces by people who are off making their own careers as fantastic and varied choreographers. And that's what I would hope—that we are not sending out an army of cookie cutter choreographers but instead people who are finding their own voice. And they've really done it."
Headwaters presents Beginnings and Endings at the MCT Performing Arts Center Thu., Oct. 1–Sat., Oct. 3, at 7:30 PM nightly. $15/$10 students and seniors.