When John Keen moved to New York City to dance eleven years ago, he wanted to see more work by African American choreographers, like the storied Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, than he found on stage. So in 2008, the Louisville native started his own contemporary and modern dance company, Keen Dance Theater, as a vehicle for teaching African American performers how to tell stories through dance.
“When I choreograph, I tell stories. They are more productions instead of just a piece. Like one of my pieces is called ‘Suite Nina.’ It is loosely based on ‘Porgy and Bess’ and it is all [set] to Nina Simone music,” said Keen.
A Louisville native who began serious dance training at 11, Keen danced with the Louisville Ballet and the University of Louisville Dance Academy, and majored in dance at the Youth Performing Arts School.
Keen returned to Louisville earlier this summer with his partner, opera singer Sean T. Miller, to bring Keen Dance Theater to Louisville stages, starting with their first performance Nov. 28 at the Clifton Center. The company has also started KD Kids, a Saturday program for young dancers.
“We had talked about moving a couple times and this was the perfect opportunity, because things were picking up,” said Keen. “We were focused on building up kids, teaching them all sorts of technique and terminology. So it was a good thing, and something we thought the Louisville community could use.”
While Keen and Miller no longer consider the company to be grassroots (“We’re blossoming,” Miller says.) Keen Dance Theater are in a building phase in their new community. They held their first open auditions for women on August 5, from which they recruited three female dancers and two apprentices.
“There is a lot of potential in Louisville. But I don’t think that some of the dancers or dancers-in-training know how much potential they do have,” Keen said.
Keen hopes to showcase more diversity in dance – diversity in race, dance style, training backgrounds and body types.
“We had one lady audition for us, and she had never done anything like contemporary or ballet. She was a hip-hop dancer. And that can be kind of intimidating” said Miller, who also serves as company manager and dramaturg. “But we look for storytelling, the natural gift. We look for people who have something to say.”
The 14-member company is currently rehearsing at Vault 1031, a performance art venue on the border of Limerick and Old Louisville, and at UofL. While many of the dancers have to schedule rehearsals around their day jobs, Keen would ultimately like the company to serve as a full-time career.
“We have one dancer who says that she can’t stop dancing. She is dancing in her cubicle, which makes me feel like I am doing something right. I’m not saying that she’s going to quit her job to dance but eventually that’s what I want. I want this to support their living — similar to the Louisville Ballet,” Keen said.
The company’s first show at the Clifton Center will be a modernized version of a black Nativity set to music. The first half of the show will feature performances by community members and special guests, and in the second act, the Keen Dance Theater will make its Louisville debut.
In the meantime, there is a lot that Keen and Miller want to teach the new company members.
“I feel like we are coming at the right time because there are kids and young adults who are coming to me asking, ‘when are the next auditions?’” said Keen. “This is not just a performance company. This is now a training company.”