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After a background in a ballet, tap and gymnastics, Liz Monnier planned to study ballet in college and make that her career. But as she began the audition process, she was told she wasn’t cut out to be a ballerina. At first discouraged, she was also told that if she wanted to study dance, she should consider pursuing a degree in modern dance instead. That initial sting of rejection set her on a new course, one that would not only alter her future but the future of dance in northeast Indiana, though she could hardly have imagined that then.
Earning her degree at Indiana University, Monnier attended as many summer intensive programs and workshops as she could, but when she came back to Fort Wayne she realized there was no place for her to continue her journey in modern dance. A rare opportunity came in 1978 in the form of a workshop taught at the Arts United Center, and when that happened it sparked a new beginning.
“Up until then there was nothing happening in my art form in Fort Wayne,” says Monnier. “After the workshop ended, a bunch of us were standing around in the parking lot. We didn’t want to leave.”
The core group of artists gathered together that day – Monnier, Cathy Craighead, Ranny Levy (who had taught the workshop), Krista Schloss and Lisa Tsetse – were to put together Fort Wayne Dance Collective, a dance and arts organization completely unique for this area, one that they could never imagine still growing and thriving almost four decades later.
“None of us thought that far into the future,” says Monnier. “We were all in our 20s and had no idea. Nobody had any business background. We’d have our files with papers in them, and we had a file for ‘Publicity.’ And it would fill up pretty fast because we didn’t think to have a separate file for publicity for each event. Lisa Tsetse was finally the one that said we should start keeping track of what we did each year, and now we have 37 books of programs and news articles over the years.”
In 1979, when they opened their first studio on Broadway, things were still pretty lean for the new organization. Monnier says they didn’t have an office phone for the first three years, using someone’s home phone to direct calls and queries. They used carbon paper and frequented Instant Copy downtown. But as Monnier points out, their needs were few – a space to dance and a record player for music. They were able to make $7,000 in that first year – and spent $7,000. That income doubled in each of the next several years. Their growth led to a big move, one that was daunting at the time but has proven pivotal for the solidity of Fort Wayne Dance Collective.
“We moved to the Hall Community Arts Center in 1992, and it was scary,” says Monnier. “We didn’t know how much it was going to cost, and if we could afford it. One of our jokes is that Lisa came in one day with a can of beans, and she said, ‘If we don’t make it, we’ll still have a can of beans.’”
That can of beans still sits in their offices, but in the end they were left with much more. Their partnership with Arts United, which precipitated the move, made the new space more economical than staying on Broadway would have, and the connection to downtown, well ahead of the current migration of arts organizations to the new “campus” environment, put them in a good position to collaborate. They shared the building at that time with ARCH, Artlink and Cinema Center, and their higher profile has given them more opportunities for vital grants. In some ways, the most difficult part of selling Fort Wayne Dance Collective is explaining modern dance.
“Modern dance is a hard sell,” says Monnier. “People are always asking ‘Modern dance, what does that mean?’ ‘Modern’ is a strange word, and some people think maybe it means club dancing. And it’s also different from what people now call ‘contemporary dance.’ But when it was being called ‘modern dance’ by Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, it was meant to be a form of art about the present time. It’s about creating in the period we’re presently in. With ballet, it’s always Swan Lake again or The Nutcracker again. But in modern dance, it’s about what’s going on in the world today that’s relevant. And it’s accessible to all people.”
Monnier has proven that accessibility not only by growing Fort Wayne Dance Collective class and programming schedules in the 36 years she served as artistic director (she ended her tenure this past summer), but she has also shared her passion for modern dance throughout the community through the collective’s busy outreach program. From the very beginning of the collective, they were visiting schools and quickly developed a relationship with Whitney Young preschool programs that grew substantially over the years.
“We’d get a call asking, ‘Can you do a movement program about Asia?’ We’d say ‘Yes’ and then try to figure out how we were going to do that. We’d get a call asking, ‘Can you teach reading through movement?’ and we’d say ‘Yes,’ then figure out how we were going to do that. We’d always say ‘Yes,’ and then we’d always figure something out. Pretty soon we were getting good at putting together these programs for the schools.”
Having long since accomplished her original mission – to bring a modern dance presence to Fort Wayne and show that there’s more to dance than ballet and tap – Monnier began thinking about how and when to end her leadership position at Fort Wayne Dance Collective.
“I started thinking about it in 2011. I have been so blessed and lucky to have a job that I’ve loved my whole life, but after doing something for more than 30 years you start reacting to things like ‘Why don’t we start a children’s performing group?’ with ‘Oh God, really?’ Things like that would come up, and I started thinking, ‘They’re right; we should be doing that. I just don’t want it to be me.’ New and energetic people were coming in, and I started thinking maybe I needed a plan.”
When a board member suggested she start charting each month what she did and, after doing that for a year, having a book for someone else to follow, Monnier knew she had her exit strategy. She had long wanted to study Feldenkrais Method, a means of easing motion and mobility, and saw her opportunity. She completed that training program in May, and two months later stepped aside from her job as artistic director. She remains busy however, building her clientele, continuing to teach for FWDC and maintaining her classes in the community through the collective’s outreach programs. Having transitioned her duties to new director John Byrne, she can look at her years at the helm and appreciate how much she accomplished. And those accomplishments and contributions to this area are what led to her selection for the H. Stanley Liddell Award.
“Right now we’re trying to transfer our videotapes of performances onto a hard drive, and there are just boxes and boxes of these videotapes. Those videos make me realize the immensity of the art created in these concerts, with the guest artists, through the dance festivals. There’s an amazing amount of work, and I’ll see a piece and remember ‘That was a really good piece.’ I started out wanting a life in dance and not to end up as a substitute teacher or a bartender. It took time, and it wasn’t an easy task, but it was sure worth it. It was sure fun.”