DDP Talks To Angela Harris (Executive Artistic Director)

Dance Canvas

Conversation between DDP President & Founder, Liza Yntema and Dance Canvas Executive Artistic Director, Angela Harris.

Liza: What drove you to found Dance Canvas?
Angela: My interest has always been to be a choreographer and while I was dancing professionally (with Columbia City Ballet, Urban Ballet Theater, The Georgia Ballet, and freelance), I could not figure out a way to have my work commissioned by companies or to even be given the chance to have my work seen by Artistic Directors. I realized that I couldn’t be the only one in this position, and that served as the catalyst for my desire to provide a platform and resources for emerging professional choreographers. Here is my TEDx Emory Talk on why I started Dance Canvas.

Liza: Your website indicates a twofold mission – to provide young choreographers with more opportunities and to connect with the community. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Angela: When I moved to Atlanta, I realized how much dance was being created and not being seen or appreciated by the southern region of our country. I am from Baltimore and went to college/danced in NYC, and as a transplant to the south, I was amazed at how overlooked this region is in the dance world. So, in addition to elevating the work of emerging choreographers, who needed more opportunities to be seen, I also wanted to make an investment in this community who should also be seen. So, the first step to getting Atlanta dance artists “on the map” was to get Atlanta audiences to see the value in going to see dance (and local dance makers – not just when out-of-state companies come to perform). Additionally, there is a need to elevate Atlanta dance’s visibility on the national and international radar, so that more resources and grants can be allocated to our community. Dance Canvas was designed to also tackle the challenge of bringing in new audiences, educating them about professional dance, and sharing all of the options for engaging with dance in our community.

Liza: Nikki Estes of SouthArts said to me in an interview a few years ago that dance is a hard sell in the South. Is it your aim to change that narrative?
Angela: My personal goal is to make everyone know that “Atlanta is a Dance City”. I now say it as a catchphrase at every event that I host or attend. I’ve mentioned it to government officials (I was recently appointed to the Mayor of Atlanta’s Arts Advisory Committee). When Dance/USA was in town for their convention, I was part of the host committee and my main project was to create a dance reel of local companies and artists to highlight the dance being created in our City. I agree with Nikki, selling and presenting dance in ATL is hard, but every year, I go to see Ailey and see the 10,000+ audiences that see their shows, I know that there are untapped dance audiences that just need to be exposed to what Atlanta has to offer.

The challenge is that dance companies in our region are under-supported financially. There is no way for us to compete with the marketing dollars of any other activity given our budget sizes. So, until we can get funders and philanthropists to value the work that we are doing down here in dance, and our marketing budget sizes are able to increase, we have to be crafty and creative with how we get the word out about the work that we are doing. So, that’s one of the reasons that we hold FREE Artist-to-Artist workshops (free community master classes) outside of dance studios. Our biggest new partner is The Home Depot Backyard, which is an outdoor gathering space that is attached to our football stadium. We also are starting a new partnership with the High Museum (our largest museum in ATL) to hold our winter classes. We just look for ways to be more visible … and continue to hope that funders will eventually see us!

Liza: How has Dance Canvas advanced new voices in dance?
Angela: We are so proud of the choreographers that have been presented through our Choreographer Career Development Initiative, and where they have gone after their time with us. We love that we were able to assist them with producing work at a critical time in their careers, and we have seen so much success. Some recent examples are: Adam McKinney is now the Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theater; Juel D. Lane has been commissioned to create work on Atlanta Ballet & Ailey II; I was awarded the 2022 Suzi Bass Award for Outstanding Choreography for the regional premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Song & Dance’ at the Aurora Theatre; Lonnie Davis is the Dance Director of a new School for the Arts in Georgia; Britt Fishel’s company, BF & Artists, just recently returned from a tour in Mareuil and Paris, France and her international Opine Dance Film Festival is celebrating 9 years; Choreographers Katie Messina and Charly Santagado met during their time with Dance Canvas’ CCDI program and recently began collaborating on a dance festival in Metuchen, New Jersey; Three dance companies have had their inception through Dance Canvas: The Tap Rebels, City Gate Dance Theatre, and Atlanta Dance Collective. Numerous choreographers all over the country have worked with us through our Choreographer Career Development Initiative, and every time I see their accomplishments, I celebrate!

During the pandemic, we started a film program, Dance Canvas: on Film. Since 2022, we have provided resources and produced 7 dance films and one documentary (all created by female dance filmmakers). The films have received awards and acceptance into film festivals across the country. Here is the documentary that we created: Art is Our Response

Alumni of our youth programs DC NEXT and DC INTERNS, are having successful careers in the industry. Most recently,  Tai Livingston (DC INTERN 2021 & 2022) was selected as one of 5 inaugural Spike Lee/Gersh Fellows and was awarded a 2-year paid fellowship to be mentored in filmmaking by Spike Lee. Her focus area is the intersection of dance and film. Here is a Washington Post article about her fellowship. Our alumni successes include:

  • Sicily Palms (DC Admin Assistant 2016-18) Director of Artistic Operations at Atlanta Ballet
  • Mikaila Ware (DC INTERN 2018) – Dancer with Urban Bush Women; Former Accessibility Fellow at Lincoln Center; Diversity in Arts Leadership intern with Americans for the Arts
  • Maya Bowles (DC NEXT 2012) – Ensemble – Moulin Rouge on Broadway
  • Danielle Marshall (DC INTERN 2019) – Dancer with Bill T. Jones
  • Caroline Riley (DC NEXT ‘22, ‘20, ‘19) and Lauren Wood (DC NEXT ‘18) both interned with American Ballet Theatre in 2023

Liza: What does success look like to you?
Angela: For me as a choreographer, I love seeing my ballets onstage – I love creating. I wish I had more opportunities to do so. As a Director, I see success through the eyes of audiences … when someone new is introduced to the work that we do, or to a new choreographer, I get a sense that I’m doing something right. When audiences leave excited about dance, then I know that we are doing something right! And, when I see my students excelling in the dance industry, and more people (women and people of color in leadership positions) I think the dance world is moving in the right direction. Diversity should be our goal … our industry should look like our society. More choreographic voices, more stories being told, more art being created, and a shift in the gatekeepers would feel like success to me!

Liza: Seems like you have 4/5 jobs, how do you prioritize?
Angela: Hahaha…I do! I am the Executive Artistic Director of Dance Canvas (which technically is two full-time jobs); I am on faculty at Spelman College, Emory University, and Brenau University, as well as at Dekalb School of the Arts; and I am a working choreographer. Honestly, I do it out of necessity – not that I don’t love every job that I have and each holds a special place in my heart. But, if Dance Canvas’ budget could support a salary where I didn’t have to work 4/5 jobs, I probably wouldn’t. It’s hard being a founder of a small dance non-profit, and it definitely doesn’t pay well. It is a labor of love, but it shouldn’t have to be. Dance should be funded more … we should be able to make a living wage doing the work that we do.

Liza: What can DDP do to support you?
Angela: Continue to spread the word! The more people that get to know what we are doing, especially that we are creating work and presenting new artists that are coming out of the south and ATL, that supports our mission wholeheartedly. And I’m so grateful! ❤️

Want to learn more about Angela Harris and Dance Canvas? Visit their website here.