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New Longfellow dance company finds its niche with families

Posted on 25 September 2017 by calvin

By JAN WILLMS
DanceCoAfter becoming parents themselves, dancers Matthew and Brittany Keefe have discovered the secret of presenting performances to children and their families.

Keep the production short, 45 minutes to an hour. Keep the prices reasonable, like $10 per admission. And throw in some tongue-in-cheek nuances that will appeal to adults in the audience.

Photo right: Brittany Keefe (Photo right by Matthew Keefe)

With their fledgling company, DanceCo, the Longfellow residents are putting on their first performance, “Expectation Station,” a story of the railroad told through dance and familiar train-based songs set at a station called Expectation.

The presentation, done in collaboration with the Roe Family Singers and Engineer Paul of theChoo Choo Bob Train Show, will run Oct. 17-22 at the Avalon Theater, 1500 E. Lake St. (home of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater). To purchase tickets, go to www.dancecomn.com.

The two professional ballet dancers have followed a path of performance, teaching, direction, and production to reach this point.

“I have not been performing for a little while,” Matthew said. “I have moved on into teaching and directing over the years.” He said he got into dance when he was in college, dating a woman who was a dancer. “She dared me to take a modern dance class with her” he recalled. “I should go back and thank her. The relationship didn’t last, but my relationship with dance did.”

Matthew left college, moved to Chicago, and started training there. He eventually returned to school and completed an MFA in dance from the University of Iowa.

“I started in dance when I was about 4,” Brittany said. “I had some eye issues and visual delays. My mom was a therapist, and she thought the ability to dance would improve my balance. So I just fell in love with it.”

Brittany said she went to dance school at age 9, and eventually began dancing professionally. I followed wherever my career took me,” she said. She has performed with dance companies across the country, as well as in Italy and Germany. The two met at a dance camp in Vermont.

“Both of us were at a place in our lives where we noticed each other,” Matthew reminisced. “We had our first courting in Vermont in the summer, which was exquisite. We did the long-distance thing for a year, and here we are. It’s a dancer’s story.”

The Keefes had lived in Minneapolis previously, both dancing for the James Sewell Ballet. They had purchased a home in the Longfellow area. Matthew said he also has family here, which gives him a real area connection. Their careers had taken them many places, and they ended up in New York when the economy turned south.

“Banks were going under, and people were leaving Manhattan,” Matthew recalled. An opportunity came for him to direct the Rockford Dance Co. in Rockford, IL. “There was a beautiful, historic theater there,” he said, “with a massive stage. We put on professional productions, and I was getting to a place where I wanted to be, in a leadership position. Then our daughter, Olive, came along and upset this nice balance we had, but in an amazing way.”

Matthew said his wife was taking on the childcare responsibilities, and he was working 70-hour weeks. “I saw it was not working,” he admitted. “I wanted to be part of Olive’s growing up. I had friends tell me they had a baby; they went to work, they turned around, and the baby was five years old. Those stories resonated with me.”

Matthew said he and Brittany knew they wanted to raise their child in the Longfellow neighborhood, so he gave the Rockford Dance Company one year’s notice that he would be leaving. The Keefes returned to Minneapolis in 2014.

“We came back here with no super plan of what we were going to do,” Matthew said. “We made a deal. The first person to get a job, the second person would work around that. Brittany got a job with James Sewell as a dancer again, and I started teaching, which was more flexible.” They did that for a year, but it wasn’t easy for two ballet teachers with alternating schedules and a child to raise.

Matthew said he had been very active as a choreographer over the years, doing all kinds of pieces. But if he began again as a choreographer in Minneapolis, he would need something to make him stand out, and that would take a long time.

“I wasn’t willing to be that patient, and I started looking for a niche,” he said. He had done educational shows in New Jersey, which he had greatly enjoyed. He and Brittany performed for the Fringe, and their idea for a company began to evolve.

“We didn’t need to start another school,” Matthew explained. “And we didn’t want to replace anything that was already here.”

He said there are companies that do programs for young audiences, but not consistently. And some of the shows are too expensive for families to afford. “I have a great respect for what these other organizations do, and it is important they are there.” But Matthew said DanceCo can fill that niche, offering shorter and less expensive performances that cater to children and families.

They decided to do their first show about trains because, according to Matthew, kids love the mechanics of trains and are curious about them—they love the steam and the rhythm of trains. “There are over a thousand train songs out there, and trains appeal to both boys and girls.”

Matthew said some of the ideas for the show began when he took Olive to the train museum and to see Choo Choo Bob. For the show, they have created their own props, using little train puppets and trains on sticks and creating a train called the Minnesota North.

“I felt like the show was good and strong but needed a hook into dance,” Matthew said. He ran into his daughter’s preschool teacher, Tony, and he talked about his ten years spent as a gandy dancer on the railroad. “These were the guys who worked on train lines and built the tracks,” Tony explained.

“I started doing research, and I watched old vintage films of gandy dancers and the work songs they used. I had my hook,” Matthew said.

Pre-shows are planned for the kids to play train games and get to take part in some of the dancing, according to Brittany. “The little ones can be part of a train, and the older ones have a place too,” she said.

As for the most challenging part of starting their own dance company and putting on their first show, Brittany said “We’re the big kids now. We try to do everything, but it’s just us.”

Matthew agreed. “We’re trying to set a standard and then realizing it’s just the two of us trying to maintain that standard.” He said the show is blessed with phenomenal and experienced artists—dancers, singers and a storyteller.

He said the important part for them is that they build DanceCo locally and that they base it in the Longfellow, Phillips, and Seward communities. “If we can be successful in what we’re doing, and if we eventually end up with a space, we want it to be in this area.”

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