Nicole Gifford & Melissa Mallinson

Growing, Sharing, Celebrating: Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival

Founded in 2010, Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival is an annual weekend of performance that celebrates the work of practicing contemporary dance artists and companies. CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal spoke with producers Nicole Gifford and Melissa Mallinson about the origins of the festival, what goes into planning this event, and what the second year holds.

Melissa and Nicole, what are your respective backgrounds in dance and performance? What brought you two together to conceive and create this festival? What niche does it fill in Chicago?

Melissa has a background in classical ballet and a dance degree from the University of Michigan. Nicole earned her BA in English with a minor in Dance from Western Illinois University. Both of us danced from a young age and grew into creating our own works while performing actively in the Chicago modern dance community.  We had worked together as dancers and choreographers, so we had a great collegial relationship and friendship. Trust was already in place to share equally in the work of creating the festival. We both love and practice contemporary dance, and we have both participated in many festival experiences over the years. We wanted to create an event that celebrated contemporary dance, and to help artists who are actively facing the challenges of producing their own work. With limited time and funds, many smaller companies and independent choreographers struggle to handle all of the production elements of a show while trying to create their artistic work. We can provide that support with the Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival.

Does the festival represent a diversity of Chicago's dance community? How so?

We hope the festival represents a diversity of Chicago’s dance community by featuring choreographers who are pushing their own boundaries and providing innovative interpretations of their genre. In the past two years, we’ve featured contemporary dance works influenced by flamenco dance, hip hop, African, ballet, aerial dance, dance theater works, butoh, and other forms that blur these distinctions. All artists can know they are participating in an event with other professionals dedicated to creating high-quality work.

What are your strategies for audience development? Is it a challenge getting Chicago audiences out to see dance?

Presenting high-quality artists is our primary audience development strategy. Our participants are experienced, intelligent practicing choreographers who create compelling, sophisticated, intentional works of art. These add to the reputation of our event and will hopefully draw more audiences that know they’re going to see something worthwhile. Chicago has an amazing dance community, and we’re honored to present so many local participants. Another of our strategies in audience development is to include participants from around the country and beyond to share their work with Chicago audiences. Being able to see and network with artists from different areas is a huge benefit to both local and traveling artists, and adds a unique flavor to our event that stands out to audiences.  Also, we work hard to put together three unique nights of performance that showcase a variety of ideas, themes, designs, groups, types of music; all working with the intention of innovative contemporary dance performance.

It’s always challenging to draw audiences to contemporary dance.  Many people are afraid to go out and spend the time and money to see something if they don’t know what to expect. But dance has increasing exposure these days, through reality television and other events that give audiences something from which they can draw.  We hope that we are presenting a festival that is challenging, engaging, and entertaining. One of the benefits of a festival is the variety—if you see something you don’t like, in ten minutes you’re going to see something entirely different and potentially thrilling, a group you might be willing to see again. This is a benefit for the artists involved as well, who might draw audience to their future productions. 

What resources (financial, physical, skill sets, etc.) are necessary to build an annual dance festival? What have you learned in producing the festival twice now?

We both had previous production experience and so saw the importance of building a great team from the beginning.  Our fantastic technical director and stage manager have both been with us for the two previous years of the festival, and we’re looking forward to their return this fall. As artists, we both have participated in many festivals, and know what we liked, what we didn’t, what we needed as artists. We drew on that experience. Administratively, we divide tasks based on our individual strengths and weaknesses.  For example, Nicole loves marketing, and Melissa does well with logistics and scheduling. We both feel fortunate to have a partnership that balances so well!  We know what’s at stake, and don’t want to let each other or the festival down. We’ll do what it takes to make sure everything gets done. 

The second year of the festival was much easier to produce, since we could draw on the previous year’s experience to see what worked, what didn’t, what we needed to change or keep. Bringing an intern onto our production team was also a huge help with tasks like volunteer management and social media production.

What is your vision for the future of the festival? What is your vision for the future of dance and live performance in Chicago?

We have recently incorporated as a nonprofit organization and are in the process of obtaining our 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. Our board of directors brings a unique blend of skills, ideas and creativity. In the future, we hope this will help us obtain grant funding to expand the event, possibly adding more performances or a workshop series. From year one to year two, our number of artist applications has increased threefold, and we expect that this year will keep drawing interest from even more participants. Our goal is to put together the best show possible, for both audiences and artists, and keep everyone coming back for more. 

This is a time of transition for Chicago’s cultural community, and we’re hopeful for the future through initiatives like the Chicago Cultural Plan. We’d love to see more exposure and attention on the work of practicing artists and neighborhood activities, which are what we represent. Events like Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival are vital to the growth of arts in our city.

Nicole Gifford and Melissa Mallinson, co-producers of Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival, have more than twenty years of combined experience in producing dance events, choreographing, and performing their works in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. 

Interviewed in Spring 2012. This story includes editorial support by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal. Go here if you are interested in submitting to this year's fest.

Published by CAR_Laura on Mon, 04/30/2012 - 4:48pm
Updated on Wed, 02/24/2016 - 1:36pm