Over the past twelve years, contemporary dance alumna Mari Meade (B.F.A. ’09, H.S. ’06) has made a name for herself as a choreographer who pushes past people’s expectations to create works that truly move audiences. Along with her company, the Mari Meade Dance Collective, Meade’s works have been performed in venues around the world including New York City, New Orleans, Berlin and Katlehong, South Africa.
In addition to the numerous dance residencies she has participated in, Meade was an inaugural participant in the Choreographic Development Residency program at UNCSA. Inspired by those experiences, Meade is now taking on her greatest challenge yet: creating artistic residency and work exchange programs in a converted 19th century watermill in the south of France.
The inspiration for the residency came from conversations between Meade and her husband about what they wanted for their future. Focusing on goals of owning their own space, connecting with nature and creating an artistic community, they decided they wanted to develop a residency program for artists to focus on their craft in a nurturing and unstructured environment. “Residencies have been very important to me, not only artistically but also to myself and to my personal development,” says Meade.
Knowing that most residency programs are a privilege financially with most participants needing the resources to travel and take time off of work, they also had the goal of having a space and program that is accessible. “We decided to make a residency based on creativity, sustainability, simplicity and accessibility and how those things combine in a beautiful setting,” explains Meade. After considering various locations to base the residency program, they decided on Meade’s husband’s hometown in the south of France.
In their search for a property to house the residency, they came across an 1800’s watermill that they felt was exactly what they were looking for. After purchasing the property in December 2019, they titled it Moulin/Belle - moulin meaning “mill” and belle meaning “beautiful.” With an original plan of traveling back and forth between New York City and France to do the necessary extensive renovations to the mill, everything came to a stop just a few weeks later when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel around the world. After making it through a move from NYC to Louisiana early in the pandemic and several trips back and forth from France for the involved visa process after travel opened back up, Meade and her husband are now living full-time at Moulin/Belle.
Meade says that the goal with the renovations for Moulin/Belle is to create a place that is relaxing, magical and historical: “We are creating a non-product based residency with the hopes that it will be a place that allows people to slow down and connect with themselves, the earth and a new community.” Meade says that while it is possible to have an ultimate product or show at the end of the residency, it is not what they consider to be the main goal.
Once complete, Moulin/Belle will include a dance studio, dance deck, painter’s studio and private spaces for other artistic pursuits such as writing, photography or music. Meade and her husband plan to host their first residents in summer 2022 and are currently accepting applications for their work exchange program for this fall and next spring, which allows people to have a two week stay on the property while volunteering 24 hours a week. “People will be able to learn a new skill and connect with the earth through gardening all while staying for free at the mill,” explains Meade.
One of the other aspects about the location of the residency that is exciting to Meade is the connections they are making with the local community. “We have had meetings with the mayor, city council and local businesses, and they are all very excited about having an artistic residency in the town,” she says.
The story of Meade’s journey to UNCSA is a little different from others. As Meade started her final year of high school at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), she was looking forward to all of the wonderful events that normally come along with being a senior. However, she had no idea that in just a few weeks she would find her way to UNCSA.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast at the end of August in 2005, it brought a level of destruction that few had seen before. Impacted by the hurricane and subsequent flooding, NOCCA was closed for the foreseeable future and students across the New Orleans area were told to enroll in any school that was taking students.
I knew I had to keep dancing, I knew it was what I wanted to do.Mari Meade
“I knew I had to keep dancing, I knew it was what I wanted to do,” says Meade. So, to continue working toward her dream, Meade emailed dance departments at different performing arts high schools across the country and quickly received a response from Associate Dean of Contemporary Dance Brenda Daniels. Daniels worked with former chancellor Alex Ewing to secure scholarships for Meade and five other displaced students from NOCCA so they could attend UNCSA and complete their high school diplomas.
After graduating from the high school program, Meade loved her experience so much that she decided to stay at UNCSA for college. “I received the Betsy Friday Scholarship for my undergraduate studies,” says Meade, “and all of the support that I got from UNCSA set me on a path that was unexpected but ultimately extremely rewarding.”
After graduating from UNCSA, Meade received the William R. Kenan, Jr. Fellowship at Lincoln Center Education, which gave her unique opportunities including presenting a fully-produced show in the Clark Theater. Meade considered the fellowship, which is run in conjunction with the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts, to be “life-changing,” as it allowed her to have a plan after graduation and time to settle into life as an artist in New York City. Meade has maintained a close connection with the Kenan Institute, and currently serves on their Board of Advisors.
After her fellowship, Meade was inspired to pursue her newfound love of choreography and was encouraged by several dancers involved in her piece to continue to create new works. This encouragement inspired the formation of the Mari Meade Dance Collective (MMDC). “In the beginning, we created work year-around, which is very different from a project-to-project company,” Meade recalls.“Our first year we had 32 shows and very little budget which meant performing wherever we could, be it a sidewalk, art gallery or church center.” As the company has grown, they have fewer, but larger, shows throughout the year — now including evening-length performances.
In addition to being the artistic director and choreographer at MMDC, Meade also acts as an independent freelance choreographer and a teaching artist with the New York City Ballet and Dancing Classrooms programs.
This year, she is working with the California National Choreographer’s Initiative to create a ballet at the University of California at Irvine and has already created a ballet with the New York Choreographic Institute, which was performed by dancers from the New York City Ballet. During the pandemic, Meade has continued to teach with Dancing Classrooms remotely, making videos for public school students.
Throughout all of her creative pursuits, Meade says her goal is to try to create spaces where people feel welcome and comfortable. “I look for people who are willing to share and try new things,” she says. “But that also means that I have to be willing to create environments — be it in my dance company or this residency program — where they feel safe to do that.”
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August 03, 2021