When Pam Kuntz was pregnant with her second child she was nervous about being a mother for two children. She sought advice in the usual places such as books and magazines, but needed more. She wanted to learn from the challenges other mothers experienced personally, so she put out a call for just that.
“I heard from a mother who’s child had died from cancer, a mother who had survived cancer, a single mother who survived drug addiction,” Kuntz said. “These are huge topics and these women are living productive healthy lives. I thought, ‘Surely I could learn from them,’ and I did.”
It was through this experience that Kuntz began the “Mom Project,” a community-based dance performance in 2005.
The project paved the way for nine other community-based dance performances and eventually Kuntz & Company, a nonprofit that aims to explore issues of universal interest with professional artists and members of the community, said Kuntz, the artistic director of the organization. The organization invites community members and aspires to create a dialogue with them through dance performances.
“Up until the ‘Mom Project’ I choreographed with trained dancers for dances about music or a response to visual art,” Kuntz said. “The ‘Mom Project’ was very different. I worked in the community about stories from the community.”
Kuntz began teaching at Western Washington University in 1999. She is a senior instructor and teaches a variety of dance classes from anatomy to movement and culture. A founding member of the Bellingham Repertory Dance Company, she continues to dance and choreographs musicals and theater productions.
Since the “Mom Project” she has choreographed pieces about women’s body issues, parenting, generational differences, death and dying, bipolar disorder, prison, health, aging and people living with disabilities.
Kuntz began the nonprofit a year and a half ago after creating several pieces with community members. She learned that by becoming a nonprofit, rather than an individual artist, there were more ways to support her mission and bring it more into the community, other than ticket sales.
Connecting a community
Most community members come to her without any performing experience — and that’s how she prefers it.
“They’re doing something they’ve never done before and they’re sharing a story, but sharing something about themselves that may not be the easiest thing to share,” Kuntz said.
“My work doesn’t have someone stand in front of an audience and say ‘I was raped when I was five years old,’ but use that information in the rehearsal process to create a physical piece that delivers the ideas and the feelings of that experience,” she said. “And because we’re not saying exactly what the story is, the audience can relate.”
Richard Scholtz, a board member with the organization, said part of Kuntz’s approach in including community members as principal dancers and taking on these topics makes dance much more interesting and accessible to the audience and community. Her work is meaningful to those who aren’t normally interested in dance.
Before he worked with the organization he saw Kuntz’s performances and thought they were fantastic. Part of her work is to find insight in the way different people live, he said.
“Pam is unique in her curiosity and courage to take these (issues) on,” he said.
Scholtz first worked with Kuntz on a project about health. He invited many professionals to help with his research, including Kuntz. She eventually choreographed the piece.
“I think of (art) as a way to do research that’s different than doing surveys and graphs — it’s research done by artists and musicians,” he said. “I think it’s crucial that arts be a companion for research. Sociological and medical data are important, but these other languages exist because people need it to express themselves.”
These experiences resonate beyond the audience. Kuntz has had many people approach her after performances to choreograph pieces on other issues important to them.
One woman approached her about doing a piece on people living with disabilities. She said she had thought about it, but was terrified and would not know how to begin.
“(I said) ‘I’m afraid to say the wrong things and who the hell am I, this able-bodied person, to think I can tell your story,” Kuntz said. “I was honest with her and she was honest with me back. She said, ‘I can help you do it.’”
From there blossomed “Stories from Jim & Jo,” a piece that explored living with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
From the audience of this piece came another request: to begin a class for people living with movement and neurological disorders. The twice-weekly class started with about eight people last year and has grown to 24 people.
Kuntz’s current project is to raise money to make a short film for research on Parkinson’s disease and to show dance is a valid form of physical therapy. The film will feature Rick, who approached her about the class, dancing and his challenges with Parkinson’s disease.
“Stories from Jim & Jo” opened the door for more possibilities of future work about neurological disorders, she said.
Learning through performance
Suzanne Fogarty has been working with Kuntz since the “Mom Project” as a photographer and collaborator. She wasn’t sure what she was getting in for or what it the organization was going to look like, but knew that Kuntz had the vision.
“With each piece you kind of go along with it. Each one is an interesting ride that you go on,” she said.
Performers dedicate about 25 hours of rehearsal time for each piece, not including performance time. Fogarty said she enjoys working with this organization because the people are dedicated and positive. It’s amazing to watch Kuntz work with people, very few can take people who are not professionals and work with them on such sensitive issues, she said.
“There are times where I saw performers who could not go on and every time she has managed to let them work through it,” she said. “She is patient and continues to encourage them. It’s a metamorphosis and she’s the one facilitating it. Just to integrate an average person with universal issues is an amazing talent, and there’s not many people doing that.”
Through this work Kuntz has met many people she doesn’t think she would have met otherwise. She said she learned so much about living in the world because of their generosity and willingness to share their story.
“You could read a book about anorexia,” she said. “But spending time with someone when they’re exploring all the ins and outs of what it was like to live with anorexia for so many years, I learn way more from that kind of environment.”
Kuntz aims to make pieces that people want to see and that matter to the community. With every show there are people in the audience who have never seen dance before. She finds introducing dance to those people particularly wonderful.
“I think dance makes a difference in our world. It’s valuable because it allows people to see and experience the human condition in a way that talking or reading can’t. Physical expression of an idea is a different avenue in,” Kuntz said. “It changed my life, so of course I’m going to think it might change others.”
The next performance from Kuntz & Company will be a response the the art of Lesley Dill at the Whatcom Museum from Feb. 25-26.