Young dancers from the Ballet Arts class at Moving Arts Exchange in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy Moving Arts Exchange

Through immersive experiences, Moving Arts Exchange encourages participants to be themselves

I liken the performance to that of any creative expression: Once the word is on paper, the brushstrokes on canvas, and the dancers on stage, the creator is no longer in control of how audience members interpret their form, which should feel simultaneously liberating and empowering for the audience.

Great Barrington — Melissa Lydon has been watching Moving Arts Exchange grow since the nonprofit was birthed at LifeWorks Studio in September 2016. In those early days, her own daughter was simply an observer, mesmerized by the movement of others and the playful, welcoming, loving ways in which the participants were engaged. “They could see the spark in her, the interest she had,” Lydon said in a recent phone interview, speaking of co-founders Ellen Gorman and Andrea Blacklow, whose venture began with a passion for collaboration and an inclusive approach to dance education. This weekend, MAX is pleased to present a benefit performance with Tandem Dance Co., featuring artistic directors and choreographers Blacklow and Gorman with guest choreographer Gina Bashour. The event, hosted by Mark Lefenfeld, Mimi Rosenblatt and Pamela Johnson, will take place Saturday, Nov. 23, at 7 p.m. ($50 includes performance and wine reception) and Sunday, Nov. 24, at 3 p.m. ($15 general admission).

“Dance is a moving art form,” Gorman explained in a recent phone interview, which means the way she approaches dance education is fluid as well. MAX creates opportunities for trained and untrained dancers on the stage, at local community events and out in the streets. It’s what Lydon calls “meeting your child where she is at” which, as any parent knows, is invaluable. Lydon’s daughter, Charlotte, is now a proper participant at MAX where she is enrolled in Ballet Arts and Modern-Jazz with instructor Sarah Daunt. “She has magical ways with children,” said Lydon of Daunt who, when asked to specify, dialed it down to the details: “What I love is they make it playful and fun by supporting intrinsic learning [in] subtle ways that allow the kids to learn [the mechanics of ballet] but through play.” This creativity, in the absence of rigidity, is what both captivated Lydon’s attention and has held it. “They are making [dance] fun . . . and I feel like Charlotte’s allowed to be Charlotte. And that’s really huge!”

Dancers from Moving Arts Exchange. Photo courtesy Moving Arts Exchange

MAX has worked to differentiate itself by creating performance opportunities throughout the year as opposed to simply working toward a single, year-end recital. Class etiquette and proper technique are taught while participants are encouraged to be themselves. It’s what Gorman calls “an ability to take dance as part of your life as opposed to something that you have to focus on [that is separate].” It is this seamless integration of dance with myriad other arenas that creates such profound results. With findings indicating that dance helps with academics, MAX is starting to partner with Flying Cloud Institute with plans to go into local schools as part of the STEM curriculum. An earlier partnership with Community Health Programs offered free classes to caregivers and children with hopes of promoting movement.

“We really want the audience to have an experience,” said Gorman of this weekend’s pair of benefit performances. Audience members are immersed from the moment they walk into [the performance space]: There is film and dance, no intermission, and no talking before the performers appear on the stage. The performance is about storytelling, and it’s entirely accessible. In fact, Gorman would like for there to be more non-dancegoers in the audience than dancegoers. “I want to reach them,” she divulged, adding, “go on a journey with us, and take from it [what you will.]” I liken the performance (which I saw in preview last Sunday) to that of any creative expression: Once the word is on paper, the brushstrokes on canvas, and the dancers on stage, the creator is no longer in control of how audience members interpret their form, which should feel simultaneously liberating and empowering for the audience. “We really just want audience members to take away what they want, and also to see that this space, which is known as a dance studio by day, can be completely transformed into this performance space.”

Moving Arts Exchange in Great Barrington has a variety of programs for young dancers. Photo courtesy Moving Arts Exchange

In the process of branding MAX a place for dance education and performance, Blacklow and Gorman have introduced the Salon @ MAX as a new home for artists to create and perform original work. The endeavor is a nod to the 18th-century French salon, a product of the Enlightenment, serving as a key institution in which women played a central role. Salons provided a place for individuals to congregate for intellectual discourse on subjects ranging from literature to various art forms. “We don’t just want dance performance,” Gorman explained. “We want musicians, we want playwrights, actors, storytellers, soloists, creators,” which is why the Salon @ MAX is offering subsidized rehearsal and performance space to regional artists in an around the Berkshires, and providing a place for young emerging teen artists to create, perform and be heard. In short, Blacklow and Gorman are excited to collaborate with local organizations and partner with nonprofits aligned with the vision of keeping artists moving and creating in our community.

“This way we’re not just waiting until May or June,” Gorman explained. In addition to the pair of Tandem Dance Co. performances, MAX will host a choreographers’ salon Saturday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m.; and in January, MAX will present — in partnership with Daniel’s Art Party at Bard College at Simon’s Rock — an adaptation of the children’s book “Frog Belly Rat Bone” by Timothy Basil Ering, featuring youth and teen dance students from MAX and members of Tandem Dance Co. Each of these endeavors supports the MAX mission to move and be moved, all the while deepening personal connections and enhancing the vibrancy of our community through inclusive dance education for all ages and a performance space for teens and local artists to share original work.

Lydon remains grateful to MAX for having created a safe space for her daughter to engage in movement. “The fact that they are willing to be flexible in meeting her where she is at, with what her interest is and how she wants to dress and what moves she wants to do, that’s how you’re going to keep her dancing. Otherwise you lose her.”