Jess Burgess’ life is about art and dance. She grew up outside Danville, and began her training for ballet at age 2. The James Madison University graduate was a co-honoree in 2013, with her colleague Danica Kalemdaroglu, for this magazine’s Theresa Pollak Prizes for Excellence in the Arts for their efforts with the RVA Dance Collective, with which Burgess remains involved.
On June 1, though, she becomes the artistic director for the Dogtown Dance Theatre in Manchester.
“I’ve volunteered at Dogtown since it opened in 2010,” she says. Dogtown’s volunteers overhauled and rehabilitated the trashed gymnasium and technical classes of the former Bainbridge Junior High School. The building became the home for the Ground Zero Dance Co., created by Rob Petres and his wife and colleague, Lea Marshall; the company also received a 2009 Pollak recognition.
Dogtown Dance evolved as a premier, non-institutional venue for dance and performance and instruction. Over the past five years, Dogtown has becaome a center for yoga, bellydancing, pole dancing, aerial work, burlesque, zumba, hiphop and modern dance. “Basically, every kind of movement that there is,” Burgess says.
The space has, she says, top-notch studios. The floors are sprung for dance, mirrors adorn the second-floor studios, and the building itself is superior. “On top being a great place to rehearse and present, it’s affordable, too. Independent artists who don’t have nonprofit status, or grant money or big contributions, should be able have a place you can afford. And that is part of our mission.”
Through three weekends in April, the Richmond Dance Festival presented a cornucopia of dance and related activities. Burgess reveled in seeing dance artists hungry to create and in need of a home. A part of her new job description is programming the spring performance season that would become the home base for these independent organizations.
During Dogtown’s early days, she assisted with booking the theater and studio spaces. As this role became a much larger task, Burgess focused on improving the facility’s website and social media.
This position means she’s leaving as marketing coordinator for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “These 90-hour work weeks have paid off,” she says, with a somewhat weary chuckle. “I’ve always had a full-time gig in the front of the art that paid the bills, and then I did dance every single evening until 10 or 12 at night.”
She possesses unquestionable energy and will. That she’s able to accomplish this much at all is even more impressive when one realizes that a 2004 car accident made her "titanium and steel" from the pelvis up. She relearned how to walk, talk and eat. Burgess resolved to make the most of what she had, given how close she came to losing everything.
Petres says that he believed that he’d taken Dogtown far as he was able. Beyond his choreographic talent, he’s also adept with tools and has made his living in the trades. And with Dogtown a going nonprofit concern, he became less involved in the art and more with the maintenance – an arts sexton. Petres wanted at the outset to make a dance-exclusive venue, which happened, though he didn’t want to be the administrator of it. In addition, he and Marshall became parents.
“I’ve kind of had my eye out for someone who could fill some of the holes,” he says. “I wanted to get the organization to a place where I could step back. She can go out and be at all the places an artistic director should be and be face-to-face with people.”
An event that brought home to Burgess the importance of Dogtown was part of an education weekend of Culture4MyKids. The organization focuses on African dance and drumming.
Burgess says, “They provide outreach to underprivileged kids — basically to harness their creativity through dance. It’s amazing to see these children onstage, having the time of their life and getting the audience involved. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I stood there thinking: This is Richmond dance. It’s not just modern and ballet companies that are coming into existence. We have so many ideas of what dance is. I think it’s important that Dogtown, which is in its fifth year, foster the growth and development of all these groups.”
But there is a longstanding Richmond resistance to going “across the river” as though such an expedition required a hired canoe and a native guide. The existence of Dogtown Dance helps put some of that canard to rest. “I’m actually excited that we’re located and housed in Manchester,” Burgess says. “Dance is not just for the dance community, but the entire community. In the past five years, the actitivity we’ve seen at Corrugated Box and Tumblr, and Art Works and Artspace [galleries] have been established in Manchester for awhile and are giving that area a voice of its own. The arts are playing a huge role in what’s happening across the river.”
Burgess says that despite her long relationship with Dogtown and working with Petres, the job offer came as an unexpected surprise. Petres hasn't worked himself entirely out of a job, though. He is quite familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the building he helped to return to life. He’ll still have his hand in this aspect, though having Burgess in place is a turning point for both the organization and Petres' artistic and family life.
Burgess sees the position as curatorial role and to assure Dogtown's position as an artistic catalyst. She says, “It’s time there for us to be less of a landlord and better able to foster that development and relationship with these artists.”
Her own RVA Dance Collective passed its five-year anniversary in 2014. Dogtown is the company’s home, too, and Burgess says it will have a role in the Dogtown mission. When she looks back at photographs of the great effort it took to renovate the building and where Dogtown is now, nothing seems impossible. These accomplishments won't come without some hard work — something to which she’s not unaccustomed. She admits to right now being in “total brain meltdown” while considering all that needs doing and her ideas for the future. She’s got a wish list she’ll be checking off. This position, though, is the first big item.
“It’s my passion,” she says. “In a city and place and art that I love. This is my dream job.”
Here’s video of RVA Dance Collective’s Pollak acceptance.