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“Sometimes dance can feel elitist or stuffy,” says Audrey Baran, founder of Baran Dance. “But you would never think that about North Carolina. So our dances are very real.”

Audrey Ipapo Baran founded her dance company in 2012, essentially by accident. 

“I was teaching at Open Door Studios between 2010 and 2012, and there were these amazing adult dancers in my classes who really needed and deserved more outlets for dance,” says the 41-year-old dance performer and educator. “So I choreographed a piece with them to perform at a little festival. Then some of the dancers made T-shirts, and I was like ‘Oh I guess we’re a company now.’” 

Baran Dance is a Charlotte-based professional contemporary dance company aiming to make the art form more accessible for everyday North Carolinians. Baran, the daughter of immigrants, has become known for fostering spaces for creative collaboration, and often works with local musicians and artists to create visually appealing multimedia experiences.

In other words, you don’t have to understand the fundamentals of dance to enjoy a work that Baran has had her hands in.

It wasn’t enough, however, to simply create dances that move more people. Three years after launching her company, she noticed teens hanging around Open Door (now Baran Dance’s rehearsal space) with “nowhere really to dance.” Thus, the idea for a teen apprentice company was born.

“We started BD2 to bring together high school dancers and create an environment of collaboration and mentorship.” Baran says. In addition to dance instruction, she also guides BD2 members in professionalization–if they so choose. 

In early January, BD2 and the Community School of Davidson hosted Winter Worx, a mini-festival of short works by local choreographers that featured teen dancers. Baran’s piece “Between Their Lungs” was one of the works featured in that show; with its emphasis on sound and lyric, the performance was emblematic of her effort to create a local contemporary dance community. 

BD2 at Winter Worx. Image via Brian Twitty

As the lyrics to Son Lux’s “Alternate World” commanded the audience to “Brace for it,” the dancers held each other in place for half a beat. Later, isolated from the electronica soundscape, the trill of three taps of piano keys pulsed through their bodies in unison. 

The stunning work explored the collaborative process and the messy beauty of working through differences. It’s all about boundaries and connections, Baran explains, “from a racial standpoint, from a social standpoint, from a gender identity standpoint, from anything and how we meet those differences and those borders between us.”

A Quintessentially Carolinian Experience

Since 2012, Baran Dance has grown to 17 full company dancers, four college intern dancers (BDU), and six members of BD2, the high school team. Despite being in operation for 11 years now, the main company has only ever held two auditions—because the dancers tend to stick around. 

“Turns out, Baran Dance is a magnet for these really beautiful and kind people to dance together,” says the company’s namesake. 

While the company and its junior groups call Charlotte home, Baran makes an effort to partner with local artists, musicians, and venues across the state. 

“I’m always trying to uplift other artists,” she says. “And I have a lot of friends who are musicians, visual artists, and poets. The more we can cross-pollinate our arts and help each other to showcase our work, the better.”

In 2021, Baran Dance collaborated with multiple Triangle area artists for the performance “Sites in the City.” The following year, the main company performed “Tiny Dances,” based on a series of poems by local author Erin Rose Coffin at Petra’s Bar. In early June, the company will dance accompanied by live music from La Brava, a Charlotte-based electronica musician.

With an array of local inspirations at work in her choreography and company, Baran is slowly sussing out a particular Carolinian voice and using it to guide all aspects of the company.

“We’re not pretentious, nothing is put on or exclusive about the work that we try to do. Sometimes dance can feel elitist or stuffy. But you would never think that about North Carolina. So our dances are very real. We are trying to make dance and art accessible for a lot of people–though that’s not to say that everybody loves each dance all the time.”

Two of the main ways Baran Dance makes contemporary dance accessible to diverse audiences is length and location. While the BD2 pieces in Winter Worx were each under 10 minutes long, even main company shows never exceed 90 minutes, and many performances are much shorter. And by choosing to perform at venues like Petra’s cabaret bar, the company brings contemporary dance to new audiences while keeping ticket prices low. 

Compare that to a 2.5 hour show at a ballet theater–which could be much more of a financial hurdle for newcomers. 

The Student Becomes the Choreographer

BD2’s second dance in Winter Worx, “Walking Home,” was choreographed by Lydia Heidt and is a tribute to the ongoing impact of Baran Dance. Heidt, 24, was a member of the original BD2 and is now a full company member. She credits her dance career to Baran’s mentorship. 

“Before BD2, I was buying into the stigma that dance wasn’t a sustainable profession. Baran made me feel that it was possible. Seeing her success led me to believe in myself and kept me on the path my heart always knew I was supposed to be on: dance,” Heidt says.  

Heidt choreographed “Walking Home,” in collaboration with the BD2 dancers, taking inspiration from quotes about oneness, empathy, and compassion andusing stream-of-consciousness improvisation to create phrases of movement. 

“The title of the piece was inspired by the famous Ram Dass quote, ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ It has been a pretty difficult and chaotic couple of years. With this piece I wanted us to remember our own power and that we are all in this existence together. No one is ever alone.” 

Check out the Baran Dance website for more information on upcoming performances.