Lisa Engelken on Breaking Barriers in Denver Dance

Dancer Lisa Engelken.
Adrienne Kendal
Dancer Lisa Engelken.
Colorado dancers Lisa Engelken and Maren Ellerman are knocking down the walls between street and contemporary dance in interactive performances called Breaking Barriers. The third event in the series will take place Friday, February 1, at Invisible City.

"I've been to a lot of theater events where you group the audience into small groups, then you move them throughout the space. I've been to events that it's well done, and I've been to events where you feel a little bit violated as an audience member," Engelken says. She doesn't want to force the attendees to participate with the performers if that's not what they want — but she does want to immerse them in street-dance styles from the jazz era through hip-hop.

"For this event, I see the interaction being the atmosphere," she explains. "We're creating a party. It's 1920s era. I want people to walk in the space and immediately feel that jazz energy and feel that this is where we're coming to let loose."

The week of the performance, the six dancers involved will lead a dance residency at Denver School of the Arts, where Engelken teaches. In the future, she hopes to run open mics, music classes and other community events ahead of performances.

"I don't want it to be limited to just dance. ... A lot of times when I go to a dance concert, I'm like, 'Oh, my God, I feel like I'm in like a grown recital.' It feels like you're watching like a little kid dance recital," she says. "But I think professional dance should be a theatrical experience. You're feeling the music; you're feeling theater; you're seeing stories; you're getting emotions."

Unlike traditional dancers at recitals, street-dance performers expect a loud and emotional response from attendees.

click to enlarge Stackz, one of the dancers performing at Breaking Barriers. - JOSEPH LEE
Stackz, one of the dancers performing at Breaking Barriers.
Joseph Lee
That's something Engelken learned about as a kid, studying at the historic Cleo Parker Robinson Dance studio, which influenced how she saw dance as a cultural experience — something larger than the stage.

"Robinson started it when she was 21 in the 1970s in Denver as an interracial woman," Engelken says, "You can imagine the odds she's overcome to create what she's created."

As a young adult, Engelken spent time in New York and then South America, exploring various dance styles and discovering how vast the art form was and how various cultures embrace it.

"[Dance] is intimidating for a lot of people – hence our social atmosphere nowadays, why dance floors are empty, why people just want to stand with a drink. Especially in this country, I think it's hard for people to overcome the fear of dancing and looking foolish versus experiencing it and feeling natural," she says.

click to enlarge Caci Cole, one of the dancers performing at Breaking Barriers. - JUSTIN REID
Caci Cole, one of the dancers performing at Breaking Barriers.
Justin Reid
Her goal with Breaking Barriers is to invite everyone in and mix dance styles and cultures — a move, she says, that Denver embraces, in part because it has been missing in the community.

"You have a lot of great DJs here, a lot of great dancers and a lot of events that are curated. But it's missing that organic vibrant feeling of, I can go somewhere and hear house music until 4 a.m. and lose my life on the dance floor," she says.

The third edition of Breaking Barriers has a 1920s theme in part because of Engelken's interest in jazz history and how it influenced hip-hop. She finds that jazz dance today is "more or less like ballet done to pop music. I think it reflects a lot of the eurocentricity that is in this country," she says, noting that her take is quite different.

"We're aiming to break a lot of different barriers. It's not just street and classical dance. It's not just an alternative space with audience and performer," she says. "I am super-passionate about different demographics coming together — age, social, economic, racial, everything. That's what I think is most powerful — this connection of putting unlikely people in the same space and building community."

Breaking Barriers, 7 p.m. Friday, February 1, Invisible City, 1545 Julian Street, $15-$40 donation.