Shannon Hummel is rapidly unpacking groceries in her new Clifton Forge home, fueled by five cups of coffee and bubbling anticipation. A team of dancers from all over the world is set to arrive at her doorstep in a mere 90 minutes — all to perform a show meant to debut nearly three years ago.
“It’ll be the first time since before COVID that all of the dancers and collaborators will be in the same space together, barring that no one gets COVID, no one gets the flu,” Hummel said. “Knocking on wood right now.”
Hummel is the founder and choreographer of Cora Dance, a professional dance company started in Brooklyn, New York, over two decades ago. The nonprofit has garnered national attention for its pay-what-you-can model, offering classes and performances to people of all backgrounds and abilities.
After the pandemic hit New York City in spring 2020, there was a “mass exodus” of dancers and artists sparked by widespread unemployment, Hummel said. Cora’s professional team, set to debut their show Grove in October 2020, dispersed to Berlin and Florida and Toronto.
This weekend, they’re reuniting at the Historic Masonic Theatre in Clifton Forge to perform Grove for the first and last time.
“It’s kind of crazy that we’re gonna pull everybody from all four corners of the earth into this one spot,” Hummel said. “This show is a gift to ourselves, closing out a chapter of being solely New York City based for the last 25 years.”
In January, Hummel opened a second office at the Masonic theater, and began offering a 10-week pay-what-you-can trial course for 33 local students. Seventy percent of attendees received tuition assistance. In early April, the program’s student showcase drew a crowd of 215.
“Sometimes when you hear that a program is free or pay-what-you-can, people think it’s not a quality program,” Hummel said. “But my belief is that a person’s finances do not define their value. When they’re coming to Cora, every child deserves the right to have a beautifully crafted artistic experience and share community with their bodies and their spirit.”
Hummel hopes to bring professional dance not just to students, but also to community members, starting with Grove.
“I think this will be really unfamiliar for a lot of people, this way of presenting dance,” Hummel said. “But I think there is an accessibility and a really deep investment by our performers that feels very personal and very intimate. I hope that people recognize inside of it something that they feel moved by. I hope they feel free to build a relationship with it and own its narrative.”
Hummel grew up in Rockingham County with her grandparents, but they would visit Alleghany County often.
“Clifton Forge has been on my radar for a long time,” Hummel said. “The mountains are a big part of my soul. You see it in my work, you hear it in my music choices. I think there’s a space of longing to these mountains that has been a ribbon through the fabric of my work for a long time.”
For the past 25 years, Hummel has visited areas in rural Virginia to offer workshops and classes. She established an exchange program between local students and Brooklyn students. Now, she wants to build the Brooklyn studio model here.
“I started looking at the similar socioeconomic divides in Clifton Forge. There are similar narratives around, ‘this part of the community isn’t interested in art’ and I know that’s not true,” Hummel said. “I passionately seek communities where there’s division, communities where access to quality performing arts programming is really necessary. That’s the gap I want to fill. That’s the bridge I want to be.”
Hummel’s passion for access stems from her own life experience. She “stumbled into” dance in college after her grandparents died — and immediately noticed the disparities between her and other dancers.
“I was poor in college, and did not have parents and did not have anyone in my immediate family who had even gone to high school,” Hummel said. “So I was just constantly feeling embarrassed to ask questions, and I didn’t want to put it out there that I felt uncomfortable. I masked a lot of that, and that got in the way of me artistically.”
Rural dancers, like herself, face even harsher stigma and less access to professional dance, Hummel said.
“There’s a long history in rural communities of being forgotten or mislabeled by urban communities,” Hummel said. “Our goal is to build a place that when people hear Clifton Forge or Alleghany County, immediately they think of professional dance — not just Cora, but professional dance that engages the community on a really juicy level. We want to be a resource and connect people through dance.”
‘I just spontaneously burst into tears’
It’s Monday, April 17, at 3:00 p.m., and the one-room stage on the bottom floor of the Masonic theater is buzzing with energy. Six dancers sit in the center, laughing and chatting while they stretch. Production and lighting managers adjust the set. The bassist plays tuning chords.
Hummel stands in the back, notebook in hand, watching over the team. Rehearsal begins at 4:00, she calls to the dancers and crew. But this isn’t a normal rehearsal.
“This will be the first time we’re putting all of these things together,” Hummel said. “There is no situation on planet earth where a modern dance company does things this way.”
After the pandemic hit, the Grove team spent countless Zoom meetings building on the show’s themes, sharing poems and self-crafted routines. “It felt more like group therapy sessions,” Hummel said. A year into the shutdown, Hummel started visiting each dancer separately to build choreography.
The night before, April 16, was the first time they’d all been together in years.
“When I realized that happened, I just spontaneously burst into tears,” Hummel said. “These are people that I’ve spent time going into a room and unpacking my soul with every week, suddenly all together. It was so massive.”
Anaïs Dallett, one of the dancers in Grove, said the team’s reunion feels “a little eerie.”
“It feels like when your school friends and your family or something, like two people from two different worlds, are talking to each other,” Dallett said. “Like this not supposed to be in the same room, that’s not supposed to be here at the same time.”
Grove has always been about “understanding relationships and how they evolve through time,” Hummel said, specifically human relationships with nature. But the pandemic infused new meaning.
“Now it really feels to me like it’s just about this cast being together when the unexpected doesn’t allow you to connect,” she said. “We will all be disconnected. That’s an inevitability. In truth, we are here as guests, really we have just this life. So how do we just make the most out of the connections we have now?”
Hans Bilger, a member of the Cora team for over seven years, composed the entire soundtrack for Grove. He said the show’s origin is “like a paradox.”
“This work that’s so deeply about nature and physical presence has been done over Zoom, digitally,” he said.
Grove dancer Kelsey Kramer said the lack of control felt in the three-year build-up mirrored what has happened in the world.
“I feel like so much of the piece has shifted, and it wouldn’t have gotten to the place that it is now if we hadn’t had all that time and all of that space, and all of that simmering in between having a rehearsal and being like, we may never perform this ever,” she said.
Now, Hummel said, the pieces are coming together. The two solos and two duets, rehearsed and created in isolation, are connected in the final dance number. The costumes, designed without ever seeing the dancers’ bodies, are being adjusted. The live bass music is synced with dancers’ movements.
“A bass is a very earthy instrument, rooted into the ground somehow,” Bilger said. “I think there’s something about these low frequency sounds that can kind of tie things together, be a foundation.”
Junie Marsh, another Grove dancer, said she hopes audience members feel that same sense of connection through the performance.
“I hope they find moments that they can pull from their own lives,” she said. “I feel like that web of connection is something that I’m constantly thinking about, even though we’ve all worked so individually on so many things.”
Dallett hopes the dance inspires intrinsic connection, too.
“I want people to have a little release from the humanness of everything for a little while,” they said. “And in being released from it, realize what they want out of it. Connect with what is worth having in humanness.”
When 4:00 hits, the dancers assume starting positions. The lights dim to a pale glow. The sound of rustling leaves and whistling wind fills the room, accompanied by a low, somber bass line. For the first time in hours, the conversation and laughter has stopped.
When it comes to classes, Cora’s push for access doesn’t stop with flexible tuition.
“I think sometimes people think that talent is the thing that will keep one kid from thriving over another. And that is rarely the case,” Hummel said. “We want people to walk in the door regardless of race, gender, socioeconomics and feel like this place was built for them.”
At Cora’s Brooklyn studio, students receive homework help and snacks. Their shoes and leotards are paid for. Once they’re old enough, social workers and experts in dance careers work with them individually.
“Cost is the sort of immediate go-to when people think of poverty. But there’s a lot of other things that impede people from feeling comfortable,” Hummel said.
The factors that limit access are different in Clifton Forge, Hummel said. And Cora is working to identify and address them.
“Distance here is a big deal, and a lot of kids are homeschooled. So we’re working on figuring out transportation,” Hummel said. “We worked with the schools to look at the busing systems, and think about whether we can add a drop off that’s nearby to some of the places that we are already servicing.”
Cora seeks community support to fill these access gaps. The office in Clifton Forge partners with the local School of the Arts and the YMCA for studio space. Total Action for Progress, a poverty-focused nonprofit that operates locally to promote client independence, is also helping to address further barriers.
And after a successful 10-week trial, Cora will also expand its course offerings in the fall. Starting in October, students from kindergarten to age 18 can enroll in class 3 days a week for a full 30-week session. The courses focus on technique and style in western concert dance, which “holds equal space with African diasporic forms, African step, and tap,” Hummel said.
The key ingredient to these expansions is garnering donor support, Hummel said. Cora built a two-year reserve fund for the new office. But that is nearly empty.
Casey Fodge, the executive director at both Cora Dance offices, said the company will focus on partnering with local businesses, larger corporations and individual donors — while “giving the time and space to let the community come to us.”
“It does take time to build those relationships,” Fodge said. “But we’re rooted in this community. We want to partner with the people who are around us.”
Ammara Shafqat, a Grove performer, taught courses during the ten-week trial and will continue to teach next year. She said the relationships she formed, and the experience as a whole, were “magical.”
“Each piece that we taught focused on a specific aspect that was a gift we could give to the students in hopes that they would take that and have autonomy in that,” Shafqat said. “There was one piece specifically that focused on confidence. And we would tell the students all the time, from the day they walked in to the day they performed on stage, they were completely different people.”
Shafqat will be joined by longtime Cora member and Grove performer Katie Dean.
“I actually first met Shannon as a young dancer. She was living in New York, I was in Virginia, and she would come once a year and work with the company I was with,” Dean said. “I just remember that I loved those weeks where we would work together. I loved thinking in this subconscious and abstract way.”
Hummel hopes the classes, and presence of professional dancers like Dean and Shafqat, will attract professional dancers in the region to an already-thriving art scene in Clifton Forge.
“There is dance here. There are small studios here,” Hummel said. “We’re here to draw other dance artists that exist across the Virginias toward this place to be a place of communion through dance on all levels, from youth education through professional artists.”