From Dance to Theater, COCA’s Signature Performance Season Has Something for Everyone in St. Louis
By Rachel Huffman
As the fourth largest multidisciplinary community arts center in the U.S., COCA (Center of Creative Arts) is a leader in innovative arts education, and COCApresents, its signature performance season, brings thought-provoking programming to multigenerational audiences in St. Louis. The upcoming season, which runs from Nov. 4, 2022, to July 23, 2023, is comprised of traditional fan favorites and innovative new work from local, national and student artists.
This season, COCA will present three main stage dance productions, beginning with the Choreographic Lab, in which Ryadah Heiskell will showcase her original choreography and share details of her experience working with COCA’s Pre-Professional Division Dance Program students.
“During the seven-week lab experience, [Heiskell] will engage in a creative process with COCAdance, our contemporary and modern dance company,” Kirven Douthit-Boyd, associate director of dance production, explains. “As she goes through her creative process, [Heiskell] will also be mentored by four working professionals in the fields of commercial and concert dance, receiving feedback and connective points that she can manifest in her work.”
The young artist has been choreographing since 2012. In her approach to choreography, she explores time and space dynamics based in musicality – particularly polyrhythms – and the manipulation of traditional technique to create unique steps and moments throughout the piece. Although she is inspired directly by the music, Heiskell aims to highlight the skills of the dancers first and foremost.
During the Choreographic Lab, Heiskell will also have the opportunity to teach contemporary, modern and hip-hop classes. “She’s an eclectic kind of creative,” Douthit-Boyd says, “and we’ve invited her to work with the students, specifically, because we love her movement vocabulary and some of the pieces that she’s already created. We just want to give her the space and opportunity to continue to develop and evolve both her choreographic practice and her teaching practice.”
Everything will culminate in an informal showcase on Nov. 4 and 5. As an audience member, you’ll get to see the work that Heiskell has created during the Choreographic Lab and ask her questions about her process and her residency at COCA.
The second production will be The Little Dancer: Moments in Time, a full-length classical ballet choreographed by Kevin Jenkins and performed by student dancers from COCA’s Ballet Eclectica.
“The Little Dancer is a staple in the fabric of the COCA dance family,” Douthit-Boyd says. “The original production was inspired by Edgar Degas’ sculpture, and The Little Dancer: Moments in Time will have hints of that, but we’re taking the ballet to another level by incorporating stories from the students. What do they remember about their first dance class? What is it like to be a dancer at COCA? What was their first connection to movement? What moments in their personal lives have inspired movement? It will be very different from other productions of The Little Dancer, but we’re so excited to bring this reimagined version to life.”
The beloved COCA holiday tradition, which also features original sound, set and costume design, will run from Dec. 8 to 11.
Last on the docket, TRIumphant, COCA’s annual spring repertoire, is created by some of the nation’s leading voices in dance and spotlights the immense talent and versatility of COCA’s three Pre-Professional Division dance companies: Ballet Eclectica, COCAdance and COCA Hip-Hop Crew.
“This is one of my favorite productions for the dancers, as well as audience members,” Douthit-Boyd says. “You can see classical ballet, contemporary and modern dance, hip-hop dance and students who flow seamlessly from genre to genre. It’s an exciting experience for everyone involved.
“Student dance productions get a bad rap,” Douthit-Boyd continues. “People automatically think of dance recitals with cutesy kids clad in sequins, but I can assure you that the work that our students are producing on this stage is high-quality performance art. They spend months and months in these creative processes; they’re so engaged, and they continue to grow by way of these works. I encourage people to come and see it for themselves. Whether you love culture or music, hip-hop or proficient pointe technique, there really is something for everyone embedded in the repertoire.”
TRIumphant is a celebration of a year’s worth of work, and it’s your last chance to witness the artistry of COCA’s graduating seniors. Held from May 5 to 7, the weekend will feature 18 works in total from distinguished national choreographers, including Justin Conte, Nina Flagg, Tom Gold, Abdur Rahim Jackson and Marcus Jarrell Willis, across three programs.
“The programs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night are all different,” Douthit-Boyd says. “So, if you want to see it all, you have to come to every performance.”
COCA is committed to elevating the dance landscape in St. Louis through its smart and talented young artists. “They grow and evolve, we learn and adapt, and together, we continue to raise the bar,” Douthit-Boyd says. “I know that the St. Louis community can get behind that.”
In collaboration with Douthit-Boyd, artistic director of theatre Jennifer Wintzer selects and produces the theater productions for the COCApresents season. “As we look ahead to the upcoming season, we’re addressing the theme of boundlessness,” Wintzer says. “When we design a new season, we consider the multigenerational audiences who are invested in COCA as a community arts center as well as the opportunities for our students to continue their training and to practice performance.”
This season, the theater productions focus on student processes and the resulting works, which will challenge and ignite the imaginations of audiences. “You’ll get an inside look at the training process of COCA’s Pre-Professional Division Theatre Artist Program through student performances and faculty dialogue,” Wintzer says. “We have an improvisation troupe, a vocal company where students work on musical theater and a program called COCAwrites where we develop young writers and commission professional playwrights who are creating new work that centers on young people.”
The Vocal Company’s fall concert will be on Nov. 18, while the Improv Troupe’s fall performance will be on Nov. 20. Both groups also have spring shows on May 18 and 19 and May 12, respectively.
Targeting older teens and adults, the COCAwrites Festival headliner, The Wolves, chronicles six Saturday mornings in the lives of a high school girls’ soccer team as they prepare for their games. The team members – each identifiable and unique – deal with love, loss and identity in the same ways as the teenagers whom you know.
A Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Wolves is the debut play of playwright Sarah DeLappe. “What I find fascinating about this playwright is that she spent a lot of time listening to young people, and The Wolves presents genuine and sometimes raw insight into what the characters are going through on the team and in their lives,” Wintzer says. “I think this will be a particularly important piece, especially under the direction of Ashleigh Akilah Rucker.”
The Wolves runs from March 24 to 26 at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA.
From July 20 to 23, COCA’s summer musical, Pippin, will spotlight other capabilities of the theater program. “Pippin is a coming-of-age story about a young man’s journey to become extraordinary,” Wintzer says. “The most recent production had a lot of circus elements, and we have a strong circus program at COCA, which we’re interested in highlighting.”
Winner of four Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival, the updated circus-inspired version of Pippin appeals to the young at heart; plus, it boasts an unforgettable score from Stephen Schwartz and captivating dance numbers.
“The concept of the summer musical is a professional theater workshop model,” Wintzer explains. “COCA employs the most teaching artists in the region, and this model gives our student artists the opportunity to work alongside the faculty professionals who teach them every day.”
Through dance, vocal music, theater, art and design, COCA nurtures the artistic and creative potential of its students – and the St. Louis community. “Whether they major in dance or theater, whether they go straight into the industry or whether they become a doctor or a lawyer but keep the arts as part of their lives, we are here to cultivate who our students want to be as artists. We value the creative potential of everyone, and we know the power of the arts to change lives.”
COCA’s signature performance season offers entertainment for people of all ages, but it also invites audience members to engage in conversation about life’s challenges and successes, joys and sorrows. “COCA is a place of intelligent and thoughtful dialogue,” Wintzer says, “but it’s also a place of good old-fashioned fun.”