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Leif Zurmuhlen

Care to Dance
Tracing its evolution from avant-garde artists’ collective to multidimensional arts-and-education organization, Maude Baum reflects on 30 years of dedication to eba
By Susan Mehalick

Caterpillars turning into butterflies. It’s as good a theme as any for a dance—especially for a group of eager 3- and 4-year-olds, as a handful of the youngest dancers prove on a recent afternoon at Albany’s eba Theater. With only their imaginations and a bit of narration from their teacher to guide them, the students creep, wriggle and flutter in their best efforts to illustrate through movement the process of metamorphosis.

Again and again, they repeat the exercise, under the watchful eyes of Maude Baum, their instructor-narrator. For Baum, this is much more than a familiar scene, not just because she is a veteran teacher and dancer, but because what is taking place in the studio with these tiny artists-in-training can be seen as a metaphor for the work she has done with eba during the last three decades. In a sweetly poingant way, the little ones—as they squirm on the floor, then retreat to their “cocoons” and finally emerge to flit about the space with the reckless abandon of prekindergarteners—are every idea that has been hatched at eba and nurtured through its developmental stages until it has grown into something perhaps unrecognizable and more glorious than when it first was conceived.

It’s precisely her unfailing belief in the possibility of what something could become that has brought Baum to yet another milestone in her career: the 30th anniversary of eba and Maude Baum and Company Dance Theatre. On Saturday (May 3), Baum and her six-member troupe will mark the occasion with two performances at the Egg in Albany, at 2:30 and 8 PM. The 30th anniversary concert will feature three older works from the company’s repertoire: Aesop’s Fables by Jamie Cunningham, Nanigismo by Kevin Wynn and Ennui by Baum; a new work by Baum, Sometimes in My Mind, Always in My Heart; and a “community dance” showcasing more than 40 people who’ve been involved with eba throughout the years.

“I thought of something old, something new,” Baum laughs when asked about her choices for the program. In seriousness, she quickly adds that she wanted to present a sampling of the kind of work her troupe has performed over time. Her two pieces both explore the theme of womanhood, and she says, “I thought it might be a nice way for people to see how I dealt with it years ago and how I’m dealing with it now.”

As for the community dance, Baum explains it’s “mostly about people dancing together and having a good time.” She felt it was important to include because “it harkens back to our heritage. One of the important things that we’ve always wanted people to understand is that they can dance for their whole lives. That you don’t have to be a professional to dance.”

To that end, the evening concert will be followed by a champagne reception featuring dancing to live music by Doc Scanlon’s Rhythm Boys.

Talk to Maude Baum about eba, and a word that she uses a lot is “we.” It’s like there’s a guiding force that goes beyond herself and her current board of directors. Her use of the first-person plural pronoun is rooted in eba’s origins. Although she has always been the artistic director of eba, Baum describes the nascent eba as a collective of artists from different disciplines who came together in the early 1970s to work together and create avant-garde art. Baum, who grew up in Rensselaer, was back in the area after following her undergraduate degree at Russell Sage College with a master’s degree in dance and related arts from Texas Women’s University. She was teaching at the University at Albany, where she remained for six years while eba was simultaneously getting off the ground.

“There were 12 of us, we were the 12 apostles,” she says now with a laugh. “Eba originally stood for electronic body arts. From the beginning, we were interested in education, working in schools, doing specific programs for arts-in-education, creating new work, collaborating with other artists, doing visual arts, working with technology, as well as straight dance and straight music. That has always been what we’ve been about. The mission really has not changed.”

Still, eba has more than outlived its original members’ projections for its longevity. “I thought this was something I’d do for maybe five years before moving on to something else,” Baum says. “All the information we had at the time told us that was about as long as a small arts organization would last.”

Perpetual motion: Baum (upper right) and company outside the eba Theater. Photo Leif Zurmuhlen

And when did it become apparent that it was more than a five-year project? “I don’t know that it ever did,” Baum says, “It just kept going. It kept evolving and flowing. And we went with the flow.”

Her original colleaugues have long since gone their separate ways and, by necessity, her organization has become much more formally organized as it has evolved from a funky ’70s arts collective to into a funky 21st-century arts institution, complete with a paid staff of about 20 full- and part-time artists, administrators, faculty and technical crew.

Today, the not-for-profit entity known as eba, inc., is housed in the historic eba Theater (which it purchased in 1977) at the corner of Lark Street and Hudson Avenue in Albany, and it has an annual budget of $280,000. It is an umbrella organization for the eba Center for Dance and Movement, which offers classes for adults; Maude Baum and Company Dance Theatre, a professional modern dance theater company; eba Dance Theatre, its arts-in-education program (in this case, eba stands for everything but anchovies); and Kids Dancespace @ eba, which offers classes for kids ages 3 to 16, including a circus-and-dance summer day camp.

The bad economy and shrinking 401k plans notwithstanding, most people who’ve reached the 30-year marks in their careers begin to think about, well, retiring. While Baum says she muses about running off to Casablanca with her sister to open a nightclub some day, she doesn’t have any immediate plans to turn the reins of eba over to anyone else (assuming that someone exists who could begin to fill her shoes).

“I don’t get tired of what I’m doing, even if there are times when I’m exhausted from what I’m doing,” she says with a smile. “In a day, I might teach 3- and 4-year-olds, go into a school to work with teachers on how to make a school an arts-centered facility, write grants, work with professional dancers and teach a workout class.”

She explains that because eba was founded to be a “diversified organization,” there’s always something new and different to turn her attention to.

For instance, even as Baum prepares for her own 30th-anniversary concert, over at Van Rensselaer Elementary School in the city of Rensselaer, students are preparing for an end-of-the-year performance that signals the close of a seven-year partnership between eba Dance Theatre and the school. Funded by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts Empire State Partnership program, it allowed Baum to work closely with educators and students to integrate the arts into regular classroom curricula.

Sadly, because of drastic funding cuts, Baum is worried that programs such as this will soon be a thing of the past—at least until the economy swings in the other direction. And she’s been around long enough to know that eventually, it will. “From my experience, these things tend to go in 10-year cycles,” she says matter-of-factly, as if it just goes with the territory.

In the meantime, she’ll do what she’s always done: struggle to pay the bills (“That’s one thing that never changes,” she says) as she continues to keep her eyes on the bigger picture.

“I see the work that we do here as being incredibly valuable, and that’s all there is to it,” she concludes. “We only have so many days to live and we don’t know how many. And if each day I can make one person feel better about themselves or learn something, then that to me is what it’s all about. I have to take my energy and spend it doing what I want to do and I have to help other people do that. That’s why I’m here.”

So it’s back to tending butterflies.

In the studio, the young dancers continue their work. This time they’re bringing it all together for an impromptu performance in front of their parents, who stream into the studio and lean against the wall or sit on the floor to watch. Brightly colored scarves serving as wings are adjusted, the children take their places and the dance begins again.

Maude Baum and Company Dance Theatre celebrates eba’s 30th anniversary on Saturday, May 3, with two performances: a matinee family concert at 2:30 PM, followed by an ice-cream social; and an evening concert at 8 PM, followed by a champagne reception with dancing to music by Doc Scanlon’s Rhythm Boys. All events take place at the Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany. Tickets are $30 for ages 30-59; $20 for ages 20-29; $15 ages 60 and over; $10 ages 19 and under. For reservations, call the Egg box office, 473-1845. For information, call eba, 465-9916, e-mail ebadance@earthlink.net or visit www.eba-arts.org.


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