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Every artist dreams of a space to create and play. Like its name suggests, Open Flight Studio (OFS) provides a space for contemporary performing artists to launch their ideas and projects. For the last 20 years Open Flight has operated as an artist-run co-op, with many notable Seattle dance artists taking a turn at the helm. Continuing that legacy are a new batch of co-leaders, dancers Audrey Rachelle, Kara Beadle, Kim Holloway, and Sara Caplan. With new programming and low rental rates, Open Flight is spinning strong connections in the dance community and acting as an incubator for movement research, performance, experimentation, and dialogue. 

Located in the University District, Martha Nishitani started the sunny, second-story studio as a modern dance school in 1954. Holloway says they are proud to be the stewards of the space that has focused solely on modern and experimental dance for 69 years. Continuing in that tradition, OFS offers an advanced professional contemporary class on Thursdays, curating instructors from different pockets of the Seattle dance scene to teach month-long series. They’ve also hosted several out-of-town teaching artists. To make the class as accessible as possible, OFS offers a sliding scale for class-takers and a reduced rental rate to the teachers. 

Two other regular classes are based at OFS. Etienne Cakpo, originally from Benin, West Africa, teaches Contemporary and Traditional African Dance on Wednesday mornings and Friday evenings. OFS is a creative home to Cakpo where he has been conducting research and building repertoire over the past ten years. Rounding out the regular class offerings is Hip Hop Foundations taught by Majinn—a queer, disabled, mixed Black dance artist who works to help students in becoming more confident and connected in their bodies.

The Pandemic hit the Seattle dance community hard economically. OFS is proud to have survived and still offer artists opportunities from training to performance. As Rachelle explains, “It’s been amazing to have a place to teach class regularly. It’s definitely been a way for me to get to know dancers who I will then hire. I’m working on a big project right now called dragonslayer.” The immersive dance piece, premiering February 8-9 at Good Shepherd Center, reimagines the Polish legend of the Wawel Dragon in the year 2048. “Many of the 10 dancers in the cast I met through classes and I’m very excited to be rehearsing in the space and developing work here.” 

Holloway says that even though OFS is a for-profit business, it functions similarly to a non-profit in that the owners volunteer their time and give back to the community as much as possible. For example, the long-running residency program, Flight Deck, where every year two to three artists get 40-50 hours of free studio time. This year the Flight Deck residents were Jordan Macintosh-Hougham, Jesse Freitas, and Carolina Marin.

Carolina Marin performs at Flight Deck Residency showing this summer.

While Flight Deck is a program continued from previous leadership, the current co-op have added Spider, a monthly research gathering hosted by a guest artist looking to explore one theme or idea. I participated in one Spider session led by Nikolai Lesnikov. He shared the practice of Open Source Forms, which offers specific methods to shed layers of tension in the body and tap into the flow of spontaneity. We experimented with writing from witnessing and I left with ways my writing can enter my movement process and as a source of improvisation scores. 

Spider is designed for up to twelve people to join the lead artist as they explore their movement-based research. Rachelle finds that 12 people hold intimacy nicely while offering enough different perspectives to give the lead artist plenty of data. It’s a free two-hour event for all involved. Spider can also foster interdisciplinary connections as non-dancers can also participate in the movement research. That’s how Rachelle met a playwright who she is now collaborating with. “I’m calling it Spider because each time these artists circle up to research, they’re like spinning a web of relationships, skills, and ideas that create more and more connections each month, and more and more research around what movement can create answers to.”

Another program the current leadership developed is called Fuck it We’ll Do It Live! Fuck it brings dancers and musicians together to collaborate for three hours on an improvised score and then they perform it in a final hour for a live audience. Dancers and musicians don’t often get the change to practice improvising together, and Fuck it provides networking opportunities for future collaboration. Performing in front of a live audience is the element Rachelle is most interested in because the witnessing process brings an energy that influences the performers’ choices. 

“Improvisation is beautiful if you really don’t know what’s coming next, but there is also a form where you are constantly composing in real time. Meaning you have ideas of markers which can cause you to make very specific choices during the improvisation so that it appears as if it was choreographed beforehand. I know that musicians practice a lot in this form of improvisation. But once they work with dancers, those are two different languages as well. So it’s a really, really eye opening practice to bring musicians and dancers together, blend their language for improvisation, and then to perform that live.”

Sara Caplan at Open Flight Studio

In addition to cultivating the movement community through programming, Beadle feels they help achieve the OFS vision to give back to the community by offering dancers an inexpensive space at the non-profit cost of $13 an hour, which is about half the going rate. That way artists don’t feel so pressured to make everything quickly just because that’s all they can afford. The four members’ experience with developing their own work at OFS exemplifies how the freedom from financial burden allows them to manifest performances they may not otherwise. Beadle, for example, is creating a piece for Velocity’s Next Fest NW, Rupture/Reverence, on December 7-9th and has been able to pay their dancers rather than having to pay for studio space. 

The OFS members find inventive ways to keep the space affordable, like inviting the community to help give the studio a deep clean, which also keeps the community invested in caring for the space. Even though event and workshop rentals help cover the costs of the space, OFS members keep a large percentage of the calendar available for artists to rehearse and research. Keeping affordable rental rates, however, means OFS depends on charitable giving. OFS welcomes donations and is currently seeking end-of-year gifts.

A space created for dancers by dancers, the OFS members are slowly but surely achieving their vision of the studio as a community space that’s expanding the population of artists served. As Caplan describes. “I think the programming that Audrey has been initiating in the space has really created a new life for the studio. I hope we can continue to be a welcoming space that is financially accessible to everyone.”