A lightning strike is what set Aurora Corsano in motion. (If only we could all have such obvious signs from the heavens.) But to meet Corsano, founder and director of the Luminz Dance Studio in Brattleboro, is to believe in such miracles. She wears her long, impossibly shiny hair in whimsical creations made of braids and ponytails, wrapping around her head like an elfin fairy queen's crown. When she speaks, she ties the ends of the braids into knots. Her words are quiet and poetic. She laughs easily, but retains her focus. She is dead set on her mission: to create a dance institution in southern Vermont.
"For as long as I can remember, the amount that I'm dancing is related to how happy I am. It's always been the meter by which I made my decisions," says Corsano, who performed throughout New York City and traveled through Europe as an aerial dancer before returning to her hometown of Brattleboro. "I've always been a dance maker, but I realized that I needed to create an environment where dancers were coming in order to find people to work with."
Corsano believes that dance, like any other art form, cannot exist in isolation; it needs a community in which to grow.
Four years ago, the contemporary dance community in Brattleboro was scattered at best. "There was nothing," Corsano remembers. What she had in mind for a center was something far different than the town's tap/jazz/ballet schools for kids and teens. She envisioned a movement lab, where dancers and choreographers could meet, try many types of dance, and collaborate in frequent performances. But in 2007 when the lightning struck, she was woefully unprepared.
"I think I had a total of five dollars to my name," Corsano recalls. "In fact, I'm sure I did." She'd been teaching dance classes in the Stone Church in downtown Brattleboro, a community space available for public use. She'd also been busy creating Luminz Circus performances around town, one-off shows in local venues that combined dozens of local performers and artists. She knew she needed a home for her art, but couldn't find one that was available or affordable.
The massive three-story building on the outskirts of town, called the Cotton Mill, seemed perfect. With high ceilings like other renovated mills in the region, the building was full of art studios, the Vermont Jazz Center, and a budding Circus School. They'd said their spaces were booked for several years out. That night, lightning struck the steeple of the Stone Church, knocking it down and forcing her classes out. The next day, the Cotton Mill called. "They said a space had opened up," Corsano recalls. "And I said, 'I'll take it!'"
Nowadays she can be seen perched attentively behind her registration desk, or dropping in on the studio's numerous class offerings, moving freely through the space. The large area is equipped with a wall of mirrors, a sprung floor with a marley cover, and large curtains and lighting used for performances. None of this was easy to obtain.
"Every step was a huge research project," Corsano recalls. She had no funding, no savings or trust funds, and no business experience. Instead, donations and help came in from the community and friends. Thanks to the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, the nonprofit organization that runs the Cotton Mill, she received one-on-one business classes.
"It seemed foolhardy, in fact," she admits, looking back on the decision to jump into the role of entrepreneur. "I mean, every step of the way has been like that: blundering. But I just keep saying yes." Now, with 32 adult dance classes and 15 teachers, it seems she made the right decision.
To understand how such a place can exist in southern Vermont, one must understand Brattleboro. The creative scene is puzzlingly vibrant and diverse. Maybe it's the jumbled streets, the steep hills or the mazes of skinny hallways and stairways that lace through the town's old buildings that weave their way into the hearts of artists and musicians. There seems to be a constant stream of creativity running under the sidewalks.
Corsano set up the studio as a kind of basin for this creativity: artists arrive at Luminz, stay for a while, and then, perhaps, move on. The schedule offers a new set of classes every three months, and performances are held several times a year to take advantage of works in progress or final pieces in which students and teachers have collaborated. The diverse offerings at the studio—from modern and ballet to flamenco, capoiera, jazz, and tribal fusion—change frequently.
"Even the idea about what a dancer is supposed to be—that's useless at the studio,'" says Corsano, "because there's so many different kinds of dance."
Although Corsano often feels like she is "starting from scratch" in terms of teachers and enrollment, the number of dancers now involved ensures that no matter who moves on from Luminz, a solid community stays in place.
The Cotton Mill's welcoming environment for artists has created a broad spectrum of collaborative neighbors for Luminz, from the Open Music Collective to the New England Center for Circus Arts. Luminz also brings dance out into the community: it offered a Bollywood dance routine for the local Indian wares shop to thank volunteers who helped them after Hurricane Irene. Luminz members have started sub-groups who dance with local bands; students perform at Gallery Walk, and even at the annual opening ceremony for the town's famous Harris Hill ski jump.
The response to Luminz has been huge, and Corsano can't help but smile about it. "When you do what you're supposed to be doing, you really do a great service to everybody," she says. "It just seems that the more you take one little step in the direction that's your path, other things fall into place for you and the next step opens up, and the next..."
After the catastrophes of last summer in the small town (a downtown fire, a public murder, and the extensive destruction from Hurricane Irene), Corsano believes the town's artists have a responsibility: "I feel like all of us kind of have a job to revitalize the town again—we need to recharge it." She and others have formed the Brattleboro Dance Party Committee to bring fun into town; multiple performances at Luminz and around the area are planned for the coming year.
This weekend, the Cotton Mill holds its Open Studios event on Dec. 2 through 4, with dozens of businesses and studios opening their doors to the public. Luminz offers a public performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday to showcase current works in progress.
The momentum for the studio feels strong. "It has a lot of gravity," Corsano agrees. "I feel like the more people make art and the more people make dance, the more it thrives."
For more info, visit www.luminzstudio.com.