Until a few years ago, Peter Gilbert was best known for manufacturing Christmas tree lights. These days he’s creating a far different kind of illuminating experience.
The Missouri Heights resident spent some four decades running a manufacturing business out of Long Island, N.Y. — at one time, the largest maker of Christmas lights in the country — before he devoted his life to his passion: dance. Gilbert’s upstart organization, Dance Initiative, hosts the second annual Spectrum Dance Festival this Saturday and Sunday in Carbondale.
Now Gilbert spends most of his time, unpredictably, with breakdancers and ballet enthusiasts, organizing Dance Initiative events and planning for Spectrum.
“I’m doing my very best to make sure that my tombstone, if I have one, does not describe what I did for all those years in New York City,” he says. “My hope is that, having escaped New York 10 years ago, I’m remembered for my contribution to the world of dance here in the valley.”
He’d been enamored with dance since his teenage years, and worked in some student theater during his undergraduate days at Harvard University. But after he graduated, in 1969, he put aside his artistic interests for a career in business. He’d been offered a job with New York’s Alvin Ailey Dance Company out of school, but the prospect of starving for a career in the arts was too harsh.
“I was told I could have a job but I wouldn’t make any money,” he explains. “So I put dance way down on the list.”
Fast-forward 40 years, and Gilbert was semi-retired in the Roaring Fork Valley. He started taking dance classes, though, as he puts it, “I can’t say what I did was ‘dancing,’ but I was there.”
He soon pivoted toward producing, and founded Dance Initiative in 2009.
“I found out how difficult it was, but worked with various teachers and most importantly got my love of watching dance back,” he says. “I somehow wanted to build the community of dance here in the Roaring Fork Valley.”
Saturday night at PAC3 in Carbondale, Spectrum offers its “Battle 2 the Drums” dance competition, featuring B-boy and B-girl crews facing off in a professionally judged break-dancing tournament. A $1,000 prize goes to the winner. The event is MC’d by DJ Soulrane of Las Vegas and MC Johnny Castro from Phoenix. The judges include breakers Ruen from Los Angeles, MIG187 from Las Vegas and Airsick from St. Louis.
“This year we’re bringing in some of the top dancers and judges in the west to judge the performers,” says Gilbert.
The competitors are mostly from the Front Range, and this year there are more than twice the number Spectrum hosted in 2012’s inaugural tournament. In all, more than 20 break-dancing crews have signed up to compete.
Break dancers will battle starting at 3 p.m. The judges will winnow them down to eight semi-finalists by the time the doors open for the two ticketed rounds of showdowns at 7 p.m.
The semi-final and final battles will compete to live African drumming by Marbonia Springs All Stars.
“For anyone who hasn’t seen B-boys do their thing on the floor, it’s pretty spectacular,” Gilbert says. “It’s like an Olympic event of dancing. They’ll spin on their heads and balance on one arm — it’s an extraordinary physical activity and it’s all to the beat and the music, so it’s not just an athletic endeavor.”
Gilbert pauses and laughs a bit as he explains this, using the proper lingo attatched to breakdancing – “crews,” “B-boys,” “battling.”
“I’m still learning the language a bit,” he says.
Between the semi-finals and finals, Gilbert has scheduled “X Dances” featuring “On the Earth and in the Air” with Gabi Rojas and “Meesh” McGlone. The performances feature an aerialist dancing with fabric hung from the ceiling and a dancer on the ground.
On Sunday, at Thunder River Theatre, Spectrum hosts ZIKR Dance Ensemble. The Colorado-based company performs ancient ritual dance and contemporary ballet in both matinee and evening performances. Led by director David Taylor, ZIKR focuses on performing the dance of ancient world cultures along with original and modern dance. They add slide projections and visual effects to create a captivating multi-media experience.
“It’s extremely emotionally impactful,” says Gilbert. “I’m really hoping young dancers and old dancers will come out and watch that.”
Also all day Saturday, at the Third Street Center, the festival offers 14 dance workshops in disciplines ranging from ballet to modern dance to improv, salsa to tango to aerial – indeed across the spectrum of dance. There are classes for both kids and adults. This year, it’s drawn 30-plus students for workshops. Last-minute drop-ins are welcome, Gilbert says. Last year, the workshops drew more than 50 students.
“Most of them are amateurs but in some cases they were professionals at some point, and they’re now teaching dance or some form of movement, like a yoga or pilates here,” Gilbert says.
One of the highlights for Gilbert last year was seeing workshops where teachers and veteran dancers learned alongside neophytes, or experienced dancers taking classes in new disciplines.
“It’s fun to see students taking classes with their teachers,” he says. “It’s a wonderful mix of ranges and experiences.”
The mission of Dance Initiative is two-fold. It aims to both entertain during the festival and expand opportunities for dance education. For the third year, Dance Initiative has awarded a $1,000 education grant to a dancer.
This year’s recipient is Bailey Barnum, of Rifle, who will attend the Richmond Dance Academy Tap Intensive program in Vancouver this summer.
“This will be a way to learn up and coming tap techniques to add flair to tap in the valley and also to bring different people together to enjoy it,” says Barnum.
The ripple effect of Dance Initiative is starting to spawn new dance in the valley. One past grant winner recently started a new local company, CoMotion. Based in Carbondale, the five-member all-female company has begun creating and performing original dance work in and around the valley.
“That’s certainly something I’ve been hoping for with Dance Initiative,” says Gilbert. “It’s satisfying to see them create and perform.”
Spectrum Dance Festival
Third Street Center, Carbondale
Saturday July 20
9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Free to $20
Battle 2 the Drums
& The X Dances
Saturday, July 20
$20 ($10 for children)
Round Room, Third Street Center, Carbondale
Saturday, July 20
ZIKR Dance Ensemble
Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale
Sunday July 21
3 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
$20 ($10 for children)