One thing Aretha Aoki learned about herself during the pandemic: When it comes to performing, she needs a live audience.

“There is an energy there. We’re building and crafting it together,” explained Aoki, a dance choreographer and professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. “And that’s very different than an imagined audience. It feels specific to that moment and the people in the room.”

Aoki is one of three Maine-based dancers, along with Scott McPheeters of Biddeford and Kristen Stake of Portland, who will participate in the New England Now Dance Platform next weekend at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston.

The event, spread out over three nights beginning Friday, will feature 18 distinct performances showcasing a variety of dance styles. It’s part of the New England Foundation for the Arts’ year-long Regional Dance Development Initiative, which was established in 2004 to provide professional development for dance artists in different regions of the country. The last time New England hosted the initiative was 2007. The program includes numerous training and network opportunities, the biggest of which is a 10-day dance lab with instructors, and culminates with live performances.

“It’s joyful for us,” said Indira Goodwine, the foundation’s program director for dance. “We’re really excited to be able to support these artists, but we’re excited for the audience, too.”



For many dancers like Aoki, feeling that connection between performer and patron has been rare over the last two years. She said she was fortunate to be invited recently by a friend and fellow teacher to perform at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. That’s been it.

“It’s like riding a bike, fortunately,” she said. “But it felt so good to connect with other dancers and with the audience.”

Few professions have been spared from the pandemic, but the extended break forced upon performing artists led some to confront existential questions.

That’s true for McPheeters. In early 2020, he was living and dancing in Oakland, California, when everything shut down. He decided to move back full time to Biddeford, where he grew up and where he recently partnered with two others to create an artists’ residency in an old farm.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d return here,” he said. “But Biddeford, it’s changed and redeveloped in really interesting ways and a lot of that change has come from arts. So, to return and see this much vitality, it’s been inspiring.”

Dancer Kristen Stake, at Casco Bay Movers, sees dance as a method of healing, something sorely needed as a result of the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Stake, a dancer and psychotherapist who founded The Living Room Dance Collective in South Portland in 2015, also was faced with a harsh reality when the pandemic hit.


“The whole philosophy of the Living Room was (do it yourself), which for me meant bringing the community together,” she said. “That ended, and I had to have a heart-to-heart with myself about ‘How do I want to spend my artistic energy?’ ”

The answer, she found, was making her own work as a choreographer, something she had done little of before. Unlike Aoki and McPheeters, who were among 12 artists to participate in the regional dance initiative, Stake is a curated artist. That means she, along with five others, were selected by the New England Foundation for the Arts – with input from the initiative dancers – to participate and fill out the performance slots.

“It was perfect timing, really,” Stake said. She had already been working on something.

Each of the 18 dancers will prepare a 12-minute performance. Some will dance solo, some with partners or in groups. Dance is a small world, so the three Maine-based artists all know each other.

“In a dream space, we would love to have more than 18 dancers that we could support, but the reality is that structure doesn’t exist,” said Goodwine. “But New England is bursting at the seams with dance right now, and we’re always talking about ways to support that overflow.”



Aoki, who is originally from the Pacific West region of Canada, came to Maine five years ago to take a position as assistant professor of dance at Bowdoin College. She also does choreography with her husband, Ryan MacDonald. They live in Topsham.

“I feel very fortunate to have this position at Bowdoin, which comes with studio access,” she said. “That’s huge. It can be costly to rent space, and there’s not a lot out there.”

The job also allows Aoki flexibility to carve out space for her own work.

Like others, she had applied for the Regional Dance Development Initiative prior to the pandemic but it was shut down for all of 2020. The initiative includes several components, including a seven-day professional development opportunity last summer through the Bates Dance Festival, and culminates with this weekend’s performance.

In thinking about the kind of dance she wanted to perform, Aoki said she thought of her own ancestry. She is Japanese on her father’s side and was interested in Kabuki, a stylized form of dance and theater that originated in Japan.

Her dance will focus on Kabuki’s funder, Izumo no Okuni, “reimagined as a sort of punk rock figure,” Aoki said. Kabuki, which loosely translates as strange or indecent, has always been “a little rebellious.” For centuries, it has only been performed by men, even though its creator was a woman.


“I’m not trying to do Kabuki proper,” she said. “It’s really kind of a reimagining, trying to create a world inspired by what she offered.”

Aoki admitted she’s nervous about dancing in front of people again.

“What we do is so people dependent,” she said. “Over the last couple years, we’ve seen venues close or reimagine their offerings. Artists are resilient and resourceful, but there is no substitute for a live audience.”


McPheeters grew up in Biddeford and went to school at Waynflete, a private school in Portland. He had a passing interest in dance as a kid but was drawn more to gymnastics.

It wasn’t until college, when he took a dance class to fulfill a requirement, that he ended up hooked. He switched majors and has made a career out of it.


For his performance at a regional dance event in Boston, Scott McPheeters will invite other performers to join him. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After college, McPheeters spent more than a decade dancing professionally in Philadelphia.

In 2014, he and partners Niki and Jorge Cousineau bought an old farm in his hometown and turned it into an artists’ space, Subcircle Residency. But he wasn’t ready to move back full time.

Instead, McPheeters enrolled in a graduate program in California. His plan was to look for dance opportunities in the San Francisco Bay area when the pandemic hit.

“Everything was shut down, obviously, so I moved back to Maine,” he said. “But I realized quickly that this is where I needed to be.”

McPheeters said living in more diverse, urban areas gave him confidence he didn’t have as a kid in Biddeford.

“Growing up queer, I never felt like I truly belonged here,” he said.


McPheeters’ dance performance will look a little different from the others, he said. Over the last several weeks, he spent time talking to the other participants about living in New England and how that effects how they think about making dance. He is creating a sound score from the audio recordings of those conversations and then plans to invite all 17 other dancers on stage with him.

“It will be improvisational, but I wanted us all to share the space at once,” he said. “I know a lot of folks doing solos or performing with dancers they know and have worked with – in other words, a more specific choreography. Hopefully, this is an invitation that’s not asking too much.”


Stake, who has been dancing since first grade (not always professionally), is a psychotherapist by day. She believes in the power of dance as a source of healing.

In fact, the performance she has choreographed for next weekend is called “You are going to be healed.”

She’ll perform with another dancer, Hannah Wasielewski, who works as a craniosacral therapist.


“It started with an idea around how do we create community healing during COVID,” Stake said. “How do we come together during this traumatic time we’re all going through? And what it’s developed into is really a ceremony.”

Stake described her work as “a combination of movement, spoken word and theatrics.” More performance art than traditional dance. A shock to people’s nervous systems, she hopes. The performance will feature lots of costume and character changes, or as many as 12 minutes will allow.

Hannah Wasielewski, left and Kristen Stake look into a mirror as they are rehearsing “You are going to be healed” at Casco Bay Movers. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Hannah and I really want to keep working on this piece. We’ve talked about working on it for the rest of our lives,” Stake said. “We’re hoping to find a venue to do a full evening-length show at some point.”

Stake said the modern dance community in Maine is robust, something that’s not always apparent to the general public. That’s one of the reasons she founded the Living Room collective.

“I’ve always been impassioned about recruiting people to find out about movement,” she said. “I had to community organize to find others, but now I think I’m able to reap the benefits of that work. There are actual dancers who live here that speak the language.”

The biggest drawback of the Portland area, Stake said, is a lack of dance space.

“There really aren’t many medium-sized venues for dance,” she said.

The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, where they’ll perform next weekend, holds 300 people. Stake admitted that will be a little intimidating, but after two years of no audiences, it will be welcome too.

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