CLEVELAND may rock 'n' roll -- it is after all where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame resides -- but for Michael Medcalf, Cleveland also dances. As the energetic director of Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre, Medcalf is intent on bringing dance to his adopted home town, where he moved with his family from St. Louis as a 9-year-old.
Dance in Cleveland over the years has been a hard sell. The Cleveland Ballet struggled for more than two decades before closing up shop in 2000. Medcalf, 36, didn't view that as a red flag; he saw it as an opportunity. When he founded his six-dancer company in 1998, he rented a studio housed in a former elementary school in an undesirable part of town. There, he began offering free classes to the neighborhood kids. "I lived in the loft upstairs and got to know the community as the community got to know me," Medcalf explained.
Cleveland is a city on the cusp of change. Once a thriving blue-collar mecca for manufacturing, especially steel plants, many of those old Rust Belt relics have closed, leaving the city with an economic void. Medcalf insists that the arts are one part of the equation for resuscitating his home town, although he says the blue-collar mentality of many longtime residents remains a challenge for his company to overcome. "Generally, blue-collar individuals don't support the arts, especially when they're so concerned about living from day to day," he says.
Medcalf, who trained with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, seeks creative ways to bring dance into the lives of all Clevelanders. Last summer, when he noticed neighborhood kids hanging out around his studio, the company arranged a free performance in its front yard meant just for the locals, who came out and sat on their stoops and porches to watch. But when others arrived from surrounding northeastern Ohio, Medcalf knew he was on the right track with his company.
His mission today is to introduce diversity into his onetime working-class community. "We are a dance company that celebrates diversity, teaching diversity through dance," he says. "When I think about diversity I think about things different than race or ethnicity, such as women's issues, sexuality issues, of course, along with the human issue of culture and racism."
The company's works, including those on this weekend's program at Dance Place, wrestle with contemporary concerns. The program features two commissions, by Linda Kahn and Young Park, collected under the title "When Women Gather." Kahn's "Dear Adnil," set to the lush "Moonlight" Sonata by Beethoven, presents a man's journey to self-discovery, moving through fear toward love. Multidisciplinary artist Park created three short works: "Eilene," a duet investigating the harrowing effects of Alzheimer's disease on a beloved teacher; "Between Two," a improvisational study in dyads -- two-person relationships and how they relate to each other; and "Masala," a multiethnic mix of dance forms wedded to a hip-hop base.
Medcalf contributes his new "Urban Love Song," programmed in conjunction with this weekend's D.C. Black Pride, an annual gathering and celebration for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered African Americans. The choreographer and company director doesn't want to give too much away about his latest work, but he explains that it explores the "down low" lifestyle: African American men who secretly live a second gay or bisexual life hidden from their traditional families. "It's a comment on the lifestyle and its impact on the high number of infected African American women with HIV and AIDS." He adds, "I'm more fulfilled as an artist when my work is creating social comment that enables discussion on whatever topic it may be."
CLEVELAND CONTEMPORARY DANCE THEATRE -- Friday and Saturday at 8 at Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600.