TRAVERSE CITY — Dance in the Grand Traverse region is taking a giant leap — make that a grand pas — forward this month with a new professional dance company called the Traverse City Dance Project.
The strictly summer company was co-founded by Traverse City native, dancer and choreographer Brent Whitney, now living in New York City. Its aim is to bring together talented dance professionals from around the country — and the world — for intensive, project-based residencies. The goal: to explore, collaborate, create and premiere "adventurous new choreographic works."
"We've talked about doing something like this for a long time," said co-founder Jennifer Lott, a dancer, choreographer and teacher from California and a long-time friend of Whitney.
During a break at Ballet Etc., where the company was rehearsing for its upcoming debut, the pair said they based the project in northern Michigan because it's an area that isn't saturated with dance.
"We wanted to do something in a place where it didn't exist yet," said Whitney, who grew up dancing at Dance Arts Academy and Ballet Etc. before leaving Traverse City to study at Western Michigan University. "And there's something about this area in the summer that's inspiring."
Besides Whitney and Lott, who double as choreographers and artistic directors, this year's company involves 11 professional — and professional-caliber — dancers the friends have worked with in the past. The dancers, from as far away as Australia, New York City and San Francisco, are paid a stipend during the monthlong residency, which culminates in performances at the City Opera House Thursday and Friday, July 26 and 27.
Some of the dancers are on break from dance companies like the Milwaukee and Memphis Ballets, others are teachers or students ready to do something "outside of their bubble."
"We both had a long list (of invitees)," said Lott, a graduate student at the University of California Irvine, who, along with Whitney, put up some of her own money to help establish the company's $23,000 budget. "We were looking for people who were motivated and wanted to better themselves as dancers. These are the best we know of in the country."
The July residency is not only a chance for the dancers to create and perform new and set pieces by Italian, Australian and American choreographers, but to get away from their "crazy, hectic lives," Lott said. When not rehearsing from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week, they explore the Grand Traverse region, post announcements about their upcoming performances and relax at borrowed and rented houses in Williamsburg and Grawn.
"I've never been up this far north," said Julie Cobble, who met Whitney when both worked with the Roxey Ballet of New Jersey and now is his neighbor in New York City. "I think it's absolutely beautiful. It's my new happy place. To spend the day dancing and then to get to go home and sit on the deck by the lake, I feel pretty special to be able to do that. It's sort of my summer camp for adults."
The residency also is a refreshing change for Antoinette Debden, of Australia, who has danced with companies all over the world.
"I've done that," said Debden, of working on company contract. "Now I want a new adventure. I'm on a danceabout."
Kendall Britt, of New York City, said the Traverse City Dance Project offers a chance to grow and a change of pace from the company grind.
"It's limiting. You fall into old habits," he said, of performing with a full-time company. "This is time to find out more about yourself and about dance."
Whitney and Lott say the company's eventual goal is a three-month summer residency that would include local and regional tour performances and work with area dance schools.
For tickets or more information about the company's debut performances, visit www.cityoperahouse.org.