For many budding dancers in the annual Community Children’s Dance Festival on Saturday, it will be their first time on stage, facing bright spotlights and a hushed audience. But amidst the backstage buzz lies another milestone that might escape the eyes of proud parents.
Miki Liszt will quietly celebrate her dance company’s 30th anniversary during this cooperative festival, which dates back to the days when Macintosh computers were fresh on the market and the Soviet Union was still on the map.
“Miki always celebrates the achievements of others and encourages them to persevere in their endeavors,” said Daphne Sandridge, a longtime festival participant. “She is the one who gives back to the community instead of taking from it.”
Liszt has not only seen tremendous changes in the past three decades, including the creation of dance programs at UVA and Charlottesville High School, she instigated many of them.
“Longevity totally helps,” Liszt said. “It’s not that you’re any better. You’ve just had more time. Over the years, it accumulates.”
Liszt spent most of her youth in Iran and came to America as a preteen when her parents pursued doctorates in the United States. A State Department-sponsored tour took her to see a performance by Martha Graham, the mother of modern dance, and a spark was lit.
Liszt went on to study with Bessie Schonberg at Sarah Lawrence College, earn a degree in modern dance, and move to Charlottesville with her husband in the mid-
1970s. She initially worked with local dance groups and volunteered in her children’s school, but, driven to produce her own choreography, she founded the Miki Liszt Dance Company (MLDC) in 1985.
Using the MLDC as a platform, Liszt sponsored performances and master classes by visiting artists including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Chuck Davis & the African-American Dance Company, and many others. Liszt also offered her studio space at McGuffey Art Center to local companies and choreographers, organizing intimate monthly showcases in the First Fridays Dance Series.
The company began taking educational dance programs to schools, hospitals, and senior centers. “Simply taking dance to underserved groups was an important component,” Liszt said. “Many educational programs [sprung] from the fact that we were the only nonprofit, tax-exempt organization in the area supporting dance and dancers.”
“Everybody lives in movement,” Liszt said. “It’s important that everyone be able to continue to experience movement, no matter what they perceive as their physical limitations, and you learn that by example. The example is only manifest if it’s brought to you.”
MLDC soon had the momentum to craft several innovative productions of their own, including Bypass, Virginia’s first multimedia dance production (and Dave Matthews’ first paying gig).
Under the Veil, Liszt’s personal tribute to her Iranian heritage, garnered widespread acclaim as the company performed in Richmond, Washington D.C., and New York, as well as at local venues.
Liszt also began an educational youth company, MLDC II, inspiring many dancers to remain involved in the local arts community, including Jennifer Tweel Kelly, owner of local dancewear store The Hip Joint, and Michelle Cooper, an instructor of dance at PVCC.
“She instilled in us a love for dance as an art form,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t about how many pirouettes you could do or how high your leg was in a grand battement. It was about movement exploration, about dance as a way to express yourself, [and] about the journey of creating meaningful movement.”
Fellow MLDC II alumnus David McCormick said, “I look back now and realize we did some pretty incredible things—high level choreography and improvisation that required a lot of emotional maturity.”
“Her own dancing is so spectacular to watch,” McCormick added. “She can literally tell a story with her left pinkie.”
MLDC II alumna Krissy Pitts agreed. “[Liszt] is the perfect example of a dancer, artist, and mentor that has left lasting impressions on me and many other Charlottesville dancers”
Liszt created the Community Children’s Dance Festival in 1986 to bridge the gap between students of separate dance schools.
“We had to overcome that identity [of dance studios as separate businesses] in support of a broader identity of the art of dance, and that’s not trivial,” Liszt said. “The essence of the dance festival was and remains educational. Its goal is to build community and excellence.”
Cooper, who also teaches at Brushwood’s School of Dance in Gordonsville, said, “Often times, I feel like [my students] are more excited about the festival than they are about their own recital because they get to see friends from their community that dance at neighboring studios.”
Nicole Busse, former director of The Ballet Centre, said, “Miki Liszt has always stood for one thing in Charlottesville: inclusiveness.”
“I see this as a series of umbrellas that we hold over one another,” Liszt added. “The more umbrellas that there are, the more we can extend our reach. You reach as far as you can and as wide as you can, and hope for the best. But the effort is rewarding.”
Liszt directs the 29th Community Children’s Dance Festival at 2pm on Saturday, May 3 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Performing Arts Center. Tickets will be available for $10-15 at the door.