Art Beat: Harrisburg Dance Festival

By Tony Conte, Photography by Britt MacAulay

(left): Mikey Rioux; (right): Alex Kaschock

Though the creative class in our capital city has surged in the past 10 years, yielding ample opportunity for artistic expression and experience, a void remains.

You can catch a live music act nearly every evening of the week in the city, and you can visit museums, enjoy a play, explore the visual arts in local galleries or even train in the artistic expression of your choice under nationally recognized experts.

But what about dance?

“It was the first thing that made sense to me when I was younger, it was the first thing that I did as a kid that I didn’t want to quit.”

So says Mikey Rioux, a 30-something who has cycled through a variety of major metropolitan regions learning and training in his art, and he is likely not the man you’d envision describing his experience with dance.

Rioux, also a gifted visual artist, and his business partner, Alex Kaschock, a former dancer for Cirque de Soleil, are launching the inaugural Harrisburg Dance Festival this month in service of growing a professional dance community in the region in the years ahead.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet’s (CPYB) contributions to the region.  CPYB has earned well-deserved recognition for the caliber of its productions and tutelage, but what Rioux and Kaschock are working toward is a dance company based in Harrisburg comprised of professional dancers committed to contemporary dance.

Rioux understands the transformative power of dance, and his passion for the cause is palpable.

“[Dance] gave me confidence that I didn’t have before,” he says.  “I am not very good with words, but I am much better at expressing myself nonverbally, and when I’m dancing or on stage performing, it is the time when I feel most like myself.”

He believes in bettering our small city by giving the gift of dance to all of us, and he and Kaschock are more than qualified to spearhead the project.

Rioux grew up in the Chicago area taking dance lessons from age 13, and he secured his first professional job in dance at age 16.  Emboldened by the experience, he graduated high school early so that he could serve as an apprentice with River North Dance Company.

After having danced with a number of companies in Chicago, he moved to Seattle acting as both dancer and artistic director in a few more.  His choreography has been performed by Giordano Jazz Dance in Chicago, and some of his pieces have even been performed internationally.

When Rioux moved to the Harrisburg region a little over a year ago, he wasn’t expecting to find a sufficient talent pool to support a regionally based dance festival or professional dance company.

Enter Kaschock, a friend and native to the region, who himself had danced professionally both domestically and abroad for years.  With Kaschock’s local contacts and Rioux’s passion for the project, the two have been able to round up a cadre of performers to support the festival, which will attempt to break down the barriers between performer and audience by eliminating the stage altogether.

On June 12 at 7 p.m., in the Capitol Room at HMAC, the performers who hail from Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago and Phoenix (to name a few) will dance on the floor surrounded by the audience seated in a circle around them.

Don’t expect theatrical lighting or a typical theatre setting – no, the focus is on the performers and the dance.

On June 19 (6 p.m.) at HBG MakeSpace, the setting gets even more intimate as dancers converge for an evening of percussive dance, tap, flamenco and belly dance.

June 25 and 26 (4:30 p.m.) will see the festival move to the Midtown Cinema for a collection of dance film shorts, and on June 26 (6 p.m.), at the Susquehanna Art Museum, festival-goers will enjoy more abstract and experimental dance performances.

If Rioux and Kaschock’s first regional dance festival sees the kind of attendance they are expecting, then the planning will continue toward incorporating the professional dance company as a nonprofit organization in the coming months.  In the years ahead, we can expect to see more educational outreach, performances, festivals and dance classes.

All of this is in service of growing the region’s artistic offerings, and Rioux couldn’t be happier to help.  Having experienced such a personal connection to dance over the years, he sees this as his contribution to Harrisburg.

“I’ve seen [dance] take people who are socially awkward, shy or have no confidence, and it can transform them.  It gives them skills for existing that they may not have had before. Dance, music and the visual arts help to create more well-rounded human beings.”