It started with a love for dance. In 1989, just over 30 years ago, Judy Dworin formed her eponymous Performance Project in the hopes of creating a group of artists who would collaboratively develop performance work. “At the time, I was also working as a solo performer and was interested in the process of improvisation in developing performance material,” Dworin remembers. “I wanted to use it as the root, then shape it into performances that involved more people. It allowed me to become a choreographer and develop new works.”
In the beginning, the ensemble involved several other artists with satellite organizations in New York City. Dworin established nonprofit status for her group in Hartford. The New York artists moved on to other pursuits, but Dworin hasn’t budged from Hartford since.
In fact, she has become a pillar of the Greater Hartford community, using the Judy Dworin Performance Project to uncover new perspectives through dance for underserved populations throughout the area. And it’s no surprise, as Hartford is near and dear to the dancer’s heart. She graduated from Trinity College before teaching there and ultimately fighting to preserve its dance program. While the city is known for its placement halfway between New York City and Boston, Dworin says there is more to the area. “There is just something about the city itself,” she says. “It was big enough to be a true ‘city’ but small enough to make a difference. I can see a clear impact.”
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Today, JDPP has three arms that serve the area: The original ensemble group that performs socially and historically influenced works (on topics such as Connecticut’s own 17th-century witchcraft trials), the Moving Matters! program with Hartford Public Schools, and Bridging Boundaries Arts Intervention — which works with incarcerated men and women at York Correctional Institution in Niantic and Cybulski Community Reintegration Center in Enfield.
“My work always has a social justice bend to it,” the artist says. “I really was interested artistically to giving voice to those who have not had one before, and bringing to the foreground issues that were difficult and people don’t want to look at.” JDPP performances often uncover dark issues but move forward in a place of hope. Topics have explored the women hanged as witches in early Connecticut, delving into the American immigrant experience, and examining the process of incarceration and re-entry into society.
Most importantly, Dworin says it’s her mission to create programs that stick. “When we arrive at a place, we’re there for the long term,” she says. And the years speak for themselves — Bridging Boundaries has been going strong since 2005, and was expanded in 2016. Moving Matters! has been helping kids in the Hartford area for more than 20 years.
In the program, children choose a scene from a book in their curriculum. Each class reads the book, does writing prompts and creates a dance from the themes they’ve uncovered. The signature program at Parkville Community School involves grades 3 through 6, and all the children come together to create a narrative performed at Trinity each year. Local band Sirius Coyote creates an original score for the show.
“One of the important things we bring is the idea that anything is possible,” says Kathy Borteck Gersten, associate artistic director at JDPP and head of Moving Matters! “We don’t go in and say, ‘Learn what I’m going to teach you.’ We’re there to give them the tools and ideas to explore, but they come up with their own voice within the language of movement.”
Along with bolstering the local community, JDPP also provides an outlet for area performers to practice their craft without flocking to other cities — and to be paid for doing so. “From the very beginning of the company, we always paid our dancers for rehearsals and performances,” Dworin says. “There’s an unfortunate perception that since people love the craft, they don’t need to be paid. But artists need to be paid like everyone else.”
After crossing the 30-year landmark, Dworin is looking to expand incrementally and realistically, hoping to train others to do what JDPP does and reach more people in more places. “I really love making performance work,” she says. “It’s collaborative for performers as well as the artists that do the lighting design and music. I’d like to continue to grow that, and to keep responding to both voices that need to be heard and stories that haven’t been told.”
And according to those who have worked with Dworin, those voices are in good hands. “I met Judy in 1980, and it’s been fabulous,” Borteck Gersten says. “She has a vision and a way of tapping into humanity and our human needs before people are even aware that it matters.”