is the biggest dance company in Detroit that you've never heard of.
President, founder, and artistic director Joori Jung is originally from Seoul, South Korea, and toured internationally with the Seoul Dance Theatre before settling briefly in New York, but felt like she needed to do something more involved in the community. New York was just too big.
While in New York, she met her future husband, who worked in Detroit at the time, through a mutual friend. He took her with him to Detroit, and ARTLAB J – which began as Detroit Dance Network – spiraled out from there.
According to its mission statement, "ARTLAB J is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing a space for performing arts with the intent to build a larger, stronger dance community in the city of Detroit. We strive to create unity between the city's dance companies, educational institutions, individual artists, and beyond, and serves as a bridge between Detroit and other artistic communities. We encourage artists to present their work by giving them an opportunity to contribute to the cultivation of the arts in the community through platforms including performances, workshop classes, and outreach programs."
This is by no means just another grassroots, DIY dance company – it is a multi-faceted nonprofit organization steeped in the discipline of dance but functioning also in the realms of education, publishing, public outreach, event production, and arts advocacy.
Formed in 2012, ARTLAB J was originally located in a loft above Niki's Pizza in Greektown, where Jung lived and danced, and has relocated to accommodate its ever-growing roster of programs and participants. From Niki's it moved to the Carr Center in Paradise Valley, and is now located in Eastern Market, working out of St. John's-St.Luke's Evangelical Church at 2120 Russell St.
ARTLAB J is a dance company of six dancers that perform Jung's original work during their regular season and also have one-off performances throughout the year, performing at events like TEDx Detroit and creating dance exchange initiatives with Brooklyn's Dumbo Dance Festival
and South Korea-based New Dance for Asia International Festival
The organization is also a "lab" for artists – the "lab" is a collection of programs curated by ARTLAB J to support artists and includes Detroit Dance Race
, Detroit Dance City Festival
, Moving with Detroit
, and Detroit Revival Project
It started off solely as a dance company, but as Jung started to listen to people in the community she found that one of the main issues people had was that they didn’t know where to perform their work or didn't have any options to present their choreography to new audiences. This led to Jung forming the first Detroit Dance Race in October 2012, a small choreographer showcase held five times a year.
Detroit Dance City Festival grew out of the Detroit Dance Race, which is now held three times each year. The summertime Detroit Dance City Festival – which officially became international this year – launched in 2013 as a larger-scale version of DDR for dancers and choreographers to come in from all over the world – from North Carolina to New York, Poland to South Korea – to perform their work and find new audiences. The three-day festival includes workshops and master classes, daily networking events, and a corresponding film festival.
This year was the first year the festival also had a gala fundraiser at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, as well as two choreography showcases. "This was the first year we had people from out of state coming in," ARTLAB J Executive Director Chelsea Radgens says. "It's growing in range and variety and also quality every year."
The festival was also a Knight Arts Challenge winner
this year, receiving funding to further expand the festival to include additional programming, national and international artist residencies, and eventually a black box theatre and studio space of its own.
Another program of ARTLAB J's, the Detroit Revival Project, launched in the fall of 2014 and is held three times a year, bringing together local artists from different disciplines to collaborate and perform together in a shared space in order to build a stronger art community in Detroit. Radgens explains, "The two artists or groups come together to bring a refreshing twist for audience members from each party in ways that are harder to do with one company [when they just] have their own following."
Moving with Detroit is another project, this one on the publishing end, releasing monthly e-newsletters designed to keep people interested in what's happening in the city week to week and month to month, including a calendar of events and quarterly networking events. The first newsletter was sent in the fall of 2014, after about two years of monthly meetings with Detroit Dance Network member dancers, educators, performers, and choreographers coming together to discuss what was going on in their lives and in the city both personally and creatively, venting their frustrations.
"This was when Detroit Dance Network morphed into Moving with Detroit," says Radgens. "We changed the focus of what we wanted that program to be. We wanted it to be about more than dance; we wanted it to be about moving together and moving forward, and have that sense of rebuilding and rejuvenating the city together." Moving with Detroit also puts out an annual print magazine that serves as a resource for dance events in the city, gathering together all of the different performance venues each year to discuss their calendars for the upcoming seasons.
Sometimes a workshop was taught at these monthly meetings, or Jung would lead them in a K-pop routine just for fun. So, naturally, as ARTLAB J continued to evolve, it also developed an educational component. The organization now conducts a series of educational programs, from weekly classes to three-month programs and summer intensives.
Despite the starry-eyed media reports from well-meaning Millennials, Detroit isn't always the most welcoming towards outsiders, especially ones that come from unlikely (read: major) cities who seek to improve upon existing resources they don't necessarily understand.
"At first people were weary and untrusting of Jung because she was from South Korea and had just moved from New York – 'Why are you here, of all places? What are you trying to do?'" explains Radgens. "They felt that Detroit didn't need another dance company, but they quickly got on board when they realized Detroit was lacking dance opportunities. Even though ARTLAB J is a dance company, we're more known for our programs. The dance company exists but the programs are more what we use to unite people and uplift everyone together."
Ultimately Jung's goal isn't simply to have her own dance company and be at the head of an organization that is involved in all aspects of the dance community in Detroit. She wants other companies to emerge, other choreographers to have the spotlight. "The more dance companies and the more ARTLAB Js there are in the city the better off we are," Radgens says. "Jung is not concerned about competition because the community in Detroit is very supportive. Everyone tries to support everyone else's festival. There are a couple of other festivals in August around the same time as ours and it's good to see the same people at all of them; that creates a supportive environment to work in and experiment with things."
A version of this story originally ran on Model D's partner site Creative Exchange.