Johnson County Community College (Overland Park, KS) and Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts (Salina, KS)


        Four female dancers in leotards stretching in the dance studio

Salina-area ballet students and members of Trinity Irish Dance Company stretch together at a master class sponsored by Stiefel Theatre. Photo courtesy of Stiefel Theatre for the Performing Arts

MOMIX. Paul Taylor Dance Company. Trinity Irish Dance. It’s a line-up that could appear at Chelsea’s famed Joyce Theater or Jacob’s Pillow, the renowned dance venue in the Berkshires. Where did this prestigious trio of companies all perform? The Great Plains State of Kansas.

During FY 2006, the NEA provided funding to two performing arts centers that are committed to bringing internationally known acts to the heartland: the Stiefel Theatre in Salina and the Carlsen Center on the campus of Johnson County Community College, located 22 miles south of Kansas City. Both centers share similar missions: they bring world-class cultural entertainment to people who would otherwise be driving to Chicago, or more likely, never see professional dance. Programmers at both sites keep an eye out for performers who may be driving across the country and ask them to perform at one or both venues, which are spaced about 175 miles apart on I-70. Artists are often skeptical, but leave the state impressed with the venues.

“We’re in Kansas, but we are doing some interesting things,” said Charles Rogers, artistic director of the Carlsen Center. The center presents a mix of touring theater, chamber music, and children’s performances. Rogers ventured into dance in 1999, when he overheard at a conference that Dance St. Louis was looking for partners to commission a new work from Paul Taylor.

Rogers surprised his colleagues by saying he would be interested. The Carlsen Center has since cocommissioned three more dances from Taylor, a contemporary choreographer known for mixing the grace of ballet with comedy and athleticism. During the 2005- 2006 season, the Carlsen Center used its NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant of $10,000 to fund a master class with Taylor’s company. The grant also supported a performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts and a residency for Hubbard Street 2 to co-create a piece with 49 aspiring local dancers.

Halfway across the state, the Stiefel Theatre also offered an NEA-funded master class. The theater invited students from every dance school within 100 miles to come kick up their legs with Trinity Irish Dance Company.

“Their performance was incredible,” said Amanda Macklin, project director. “It was so much more than just some Celtic dancing.”

The Stiefel Theatre was once a Fox movie palace that provided cheap entertainment at the height of the Great Depression. The theater gradually fell into decline and closed in 1981. In 2003, it reopened as a privately owned performing arts center dedicated to serving central Kansas.

In FY 2006, the center received an NEA Challenge America grant of $10,000 to book performers with a world music theme, like the Trinity Irish Dance Company. The grant also funded an evening of Indian music with sitar virtuoso Anoushka Shankar. Her band of percussionists offered a well-attended tabla drumming workshop.

(From the NEA 2006 Annual Report