Olga Dunn reflects on four decades of dance in anniversary performance at Saint James Place

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A freight train rumbles through the heart of Great Barrington. At the former railway station, windows rattle, floors vibrate and diminutive dancers rush to watch it roll by, almost close enough to touch. Outside on the fenced-in platform, summer campers will squeal with delight and hold on to their artworks for safety. Secure in her station studio, dancer, educator and choreographer Olga Dunn, her little rescue dog at her side, prepares to share her passion of 40 years at a performance of her eponymous dance company Saturday at the recently renovated venue, Saint James Place.

The hour-long anniversary show's title, "Bach, Time, Laughs and Gospel," represents four facets of Dunn's creative vision, one for each decade.

"We've always loved classical music, and have been very connected with the spirituality of Bach's music," she explains. "The section on 'Time' is moving forward, how American dance has changed. We'll have Swing, Modern Broadway Jazz, Crazy Hustle and Hip Hop."

"And comedy is eternal, we always want to laugh."

North Adams dancer Jamal Ahamad will choreograph a dance and perform two solos, she added; and the Gospel pieces will pay homage to Saint James Place, a former church.

The Olga Dunn Dance Company is made up of past and present students, adults and teenagers performing solos, trios and ensemble dances in Dunn's signature blend of styles.

"I'm heavily influenced by African dance, combining it with modern, like Alvin Ailey, a beautiful multi-style background," she explains. "Ballet is an important foundation, and hip hop as well, that's a dance form people want to see now."

"I think we've lasted because the style is very exciting."

While Dunn sees dance as a sense of motion, a give and take between audience and performers, she worries about dance being egocentric. "One of our key missions is to bring something the audience can feel, that uplifts them. It's not about self indulgence, it's about propelling something beautiful and inspiring."

After 36 years overlooking Main Street, in 2014 Dunn had to find a new home in just five weeks. Their sprung dance floor was hauled down two flights of stairs on the hottest June day, Dunn recalled, and reinstalled in the historic station, an airy building formerly reused as a restaurant, art gallery and unemployment office.

The company is an extension of her school. "George Balanchine said, `First, a school'," she noted, "otherwise you just have pickup dancers who are not necessarily going to understand your style or vision."

Dunn was born in Paris of Russian heritage and raised in the American South. A Tanglewood dance program introduced her to the Berkshires where she settled, taught and formed her dance company. Early performances spread as far afield as Albany, N.Y. and Connecticut; nowadays she focuses on the Berkshire community, performing at venues such as Jacob's Pillow and Pittsfield and south county theaters, as well as the annual Lift Ev'ry Voice Festival.

Her school and company is a family, biological or otherwise. Her husband Brian Burke's jazz band will play at Saturday's post-performance reception. Their son, Yon, grew up in the studio, won college scholarships to study dance, and enjoyed a professional NYC career. Performer Hope St. Jock joined the studio at age 5 and, at 23, now teaches there.

In 2011, former AmeriCorp volunteer Marla Robertson walked into the Main Street studio during her lunch break and never left — even though she now works at the other end of the county in Williamstown and North Adams.

"I just felt welcome there," the Tennessee-native recalls. "I wasn't a dance kid, but Olga is very patient and recognizes the strengths you have."

Dunn helped Robertson expand her predominantly West African dance vocabulary with ballet and modern techniques.

"I really enjoy pushing my body," Robertson said. "[Dunn] gets her inspiration from a lot of places, it's two different ends of the dance spectrum."

With arts funding under threat, Dunn sees the need to stand up for dance more pressing than ever. "There's a seemingly unlimited amount of commitment on my part," she said. "I don't dance any more, so the question is where to put the energy that is still there?

"[Albany Berkshire Ballet founder] Madeline Cantarella Culpo is in her 80s and an inspiration to me. It's the new times — who wants to retire?!"


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