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ConnectVA Spotilght: Jess Burgess, Artistic and Executive Director, Dogtown Dance Theatre

Tell us about yourself. 

My name is Jess Burgess and I am the Artistic and Executive Director for Dogtown Dance Theatre. Dogtown is a nonprofit dance service organization that provides a home for all of Richmond’s independent performance artists. We seek to enliven our local community by fostering creative expression and education across diverse populations. I am also a choreographer, dancer, and dance instructor creating work and teaching dance across the state of Virginia.


What is the focus of your work?

Since Dogtown’s inception, we noticed the need for independent performing artists to have a home. Producing dance work is an expensive endeavor, and many times dance artists are without the financial means to create their work. Dogtown addresses this need for Richmond’s dance artists by providing them with the resources they need to create their art. This includes the financial, technical, marketing, grant-writing, and administrative support these artists need to keep the independent, vibrant dance voice alive in our community.

Dogtown Dance Theatre is a nonprofit dance service organization that provides a home for all of Richmond’s independent performance artists.


What do you find most rewarding about your work?

Witnessing the culmination of years of work come to fruition live onstage is by far the most rewarding part of my work here at Dogtown. Dance artists by nature learn at a young age the dedication and sacrifice it takes to create dance art. Through programs like the Dogtown Presenter’s Series in the fall and the Richmond Dance Festival in the spring, Dogtown provides artists with rehearsal space to create their art, and then takes them onto the main stage theatre in our beautifully restored former junior high school to bring that work to life.

As a dancer, so much of the focus in life is on training and perfecting technique, the creation of pedagogy, and composition of work, that the production aspect of the theatre is rarely learned. We are able to provide that expertise to artists that wouldn’t otherwise be able to produce their work in a main stage production.

The artists that call Dogtown home are what keep me inspired. We serve over 50 artists on a monthly basis with our programming, and these artists excel in dance that spans across so many diverse genres including modern and contemporary dance, African, salsa, Flamenco, hoop dance and flow arts, tap, hip hop, yoga, and so much more. Dancers at Dogtown come from all types of backgrounds, creating an environment of a culturally diverse, homegrown community.


What are some major challenges you have faced and how you handled them?

As a relatively young nonprofit arts organization in Richmond, there are so many things that need to be done to promote a new organization and get our mission in front of the arts patrons in the Richmond community. Overall awareness of Dogtown and being located in historic Manchester continues to be a challenge. Manchester is a rapidly growing section of Richmond, and Dogtown is proud to provide a community arts center right in the heart of this development.

What would someone be surprised to know about your organization?

Dogtown is so much more than just a space to rent. We offer comprehensive services to all the artists that call Dogtown home. This in turn allows these artists to bring high quality alternative dance instruction and performance to the Richmond area.



Do you have any interesting initiatives or programs on the horizon?

Dogtown has so much coming in the 2017-18 Season! Dogtown offers four free weekly classes in hoop dance, Salsa de Rueda, African-Caribbean dance, and modern dance technique alongside other extremely affordable classes and workshops. We also are looking forward to our annual Mardi Gras RVA event in February that includes performances by Dogtown artists, live New Orleans music, Cajun food, a Mardi Gras parade through Manchester, and family-friendly fun for all ages. We also present our 5th anniversary season of the Richmond Dance Festival this spring in May. Richmond Dance Festival is a three-week celebration of dance artists and dance film artists from all across the nation and globe alongside local Richmond artists.


Is your organization involved in any exciting collaborations or partnerships?

Our whole organization thrives on the collaboration of the artists inside the building that call Dogtown home. We also work with VCU Dance, Art Works Galleries and Studios, University of Richmond, Randolph Macon University, Thomas Dale Performing Arts High School, and RVA Arts Academy.

Great art cannot survive or thrive without the spirit of collaboration. Our 2018 Dogtown Presenter’s Series next September will feature four of the seven dance companies in residence here at Dogtown alongside travelling artists and live musicians for a show exploring the ecosystem of our oceans and the journey of one’s soul as it relates to that ever-changing symbiotic relationship. Collaboration is what makes Dogtown so accessible and vibrant!



How are you leveraging ConnectVA/The Community Foundation to achieve your mission?

Dogtown truly appreciates the networking, resources, and support towards a larger collaborative outcome that the Community Foundation provides arts organizations and nonprofits in our community. We’ve worked with other organization directors to discuss strategy and collaboration towards program development and evaluation because of the relationships we’ve been able to build with other arts organizations due to the ConnectVA and TCF opportunities and resources. We’ve also used ConnectVA to list jobs and identify resources for staff development and volunteers for Dogtown. TCF has been a wonderful thought partner and supporter of so many arts organizations in Richmond, and we look forward to continuing to use TCF as a resources to support Dogtown’s mission to provide a home for all independent dance artists in the Richmond community.


 Anything else you would like to share?

As I sat down to write these answers to the spotlight series, it dawned on me that this is my opportunity to let Richmond know what dance is. And what Dogtown means to dancers. The reason Dogtown exists is because of the innate need in many people to be movers. A dance teacher once told me that you don’t choose dance – dance chooses you. This is true for me personally, and it is true for the community of artists that call Dogtown home.

Dogtown has long been my artistic home, but since I became the Artistic and Executive Director in 2015, I have been a witness to an enormous outpouring of support and love for all types of dance. Witnessing these artists coming together – from new choreographers performing in the Richmond Dance Festival beside professional long-standing choreographers, to the community and love that exists in the belly dancing world, alongside the discipline and dedication behind modern and contemporary dance and choreography, and the sense of family that exists in the African classes and workshops inside these walls – I have come alive.

I have always known what dance means to me, but to see what dance means to so many individuals, in so many different forms, makes me believe in this organization and group of artists more than ever. Dogtown is a needed resource in the Richmond community. It is accessible to anyone and everyone that loves this art form. As a new nonprofit organization, we have many challenges ahead of us to secure a sense of longevity. With support through organizations like The Community Foundation, we will be able to do that. Bottom line: this place deserves to exist. The people who create art inside these walls usually do it for nothing. They love it, pure and simple. This is a fact for all artists who claim dance as their own. And Dogtown is bringing this unique community together, right in the heart of historic Manchester in Richmond.

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