This story begins with a question. What does it mean to be of this place?
It’s a question that collaborative dancemaker and educator Matthew Cumbie asks in his movement workshops. But first, he gathers participants in a circle and enlists his students to lead warm-up activities. Everyone rolls shoulders, sweeps arms up and out, and plays a game mirroring a partner’s movements.
Only then does he ask, What does it mean to be of this place? Of Waterville. Of Colby.
After sharing their stories, everyone repeats the movements, holding their story in their mind. This time, the movements feel different. Some lighter, others heavier. Abbreviated, or drawn out. A few people close their eyes.
Linking movement and stories is the thrust behind Cumbie’s ambitious, multiyear performance project to collect stories of Colby, Waterville, and the people who have shaped these communities, past and present. Together with artistic collaborators, he has woven the stories into a sweeping performance integrating dance, storytelling, projection, original music, and theatrical design elements.
The result is a highly anticipated piece titled Of This Place, which premieres at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10. The performance will be the first original, interdisciplinary work staged in the new Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts. Free tickets are available online.
Of This Place invites the public to a performance where residents can see themselves and be validated in this community, said Cumbie, a visiting assistant professor of performance, theater, and dance. “I want to use this performance as a way to bring people together to reflect on what it means to belong here and be here.”
Years in the making
Directed by Cumbie in collaboration with Maine-based Teaching Artist Jeri Pitcher and Assistant Professor of Music José Martínez, Of This Place is its own story of the arts incubation process at Colby. With support from the Department of Performance, Theater, and Dance and the Colby Arts Office, Cumbie has collaborated across disciplines and had his project enthusiastically embraced in unexpected and powerful ways.
Moving the project from conceptualization to reality was possible because of the extraordinary resources in the Gordon Center and Colby’s growing commitment to the arts.
A community-based approach to performance stems from Cumbie’s time as an artist with the Washington, D.C.-based Dance Exchange. Founded by Liz Lerman, the company expands the idea of who gets to dance, where dance occurs, and what performances can be about. In 2018 Cumbie and dance artist/educator Christine King came to Colby from the Dance Exchange for a weeklong community-engagement residency teaching interdisciplinary classes on campus and at the Maine Arts Academy.
Back in Washington, Cumbie engaged in conversations with Annie Kloppenberg, Colby’s associate professor of performance, theater, and dance. They discussed staging a community-based performance for the opening of the Gordon Center. Cumbie came to Colby in 2021 as a visiting assistant professor and started the Of This Place project in earnest.
In the days before Of This Place premiered, Cumbie reflected on arriving at this key moment in the long arc of the project. “For me as an artist, I have felt my own sense of connection to this place I call home deepen,” he said. “Because of that, I feel more a part of this place, Colby College specifically, but also more a part of Waterville and a part of its story.”
Creating pathways in
Theatergoers attending Of This Place will be treated to a dance performance rich with imagery and sound in the Gordon Center’s Olentine Forum when they enter the building and in the Performance Hall during the show. Dancers of all ages will explore themes relating to rivers, bridges, and town-gown relations.
The scope and scale of the project reflect Cumbie’s desire to make Of This Place as inclusive as possible. “The more people we involve, the more stories we can hold and connect to,” he said. “That will open doors and pathways for people in.”
To collect the stories of others, Cumbie dedicated much of the last three years building bridges and forming partnerships through one-on-one interviews, movement workshops, artist residencies, and courses on campus. Waterville’s Albert S. Hall School and Beth Israel Synagogue, the Maine Arts Academy, Waterville Creates, and Colby academic departments, programs, and offices are among his collaborators.
“I have loved the collaborative nature of this project and opening up that collaboration in the biggest possible way,” said Pitcher, who is collaborating with Cumbie to shape the performance’s narrative thread. “Matthew has been wonderful in that he just continues to open it up and open it up and open it up.”
Everybody, every body
Pitcher is part of the creative team of professional visiting artists, choreographers, set designers, composers, musicians, a research historian, and Bessie Award-winning visual designer Roma Flowers. They will be joined backstage and onstage by a multigenerational company of community members, elementary and high school students, and Colby alumni, students, faculty, and staff. Everyone who attended a movement workshop is welcome to join the company on stage for the final number.
Pitcher described the intergenerational aspect as “beautiful,” and Gabby Vogel ’26, an education and performance, theater, and dance double major, relished the inclusive and accepting environment. After co-facilitating workshops at the Hall School and in Waterville during her Jan Plan course with Cumbie, Vogel noted that “we all bring very different skills and backgrounds.”
For Maggie Libby ’81, the opportunity to dance in Of This Place is a way to revisit their love of dance as a child but “in a much older body.” At 68, they love the involvement of the little kids and sharing with them a “sense of possibility of expression and art. It is just such a great way to plant seeds.”
Looking back, looking ahead
Libby also serves as an archival historian on the project. As a working artist with a deep grounding in the history of Colby, Waterville, women, and the Kennebec River, they have ensured Of This Place gives voice to the voiceless.
“Because we’re here on campus, we tend to hear only Colby’s story, and the Waterville story is equally compelling and important to acknowledge,” said Libby, curator of digital discovery and engagement in Colby’s Special Collections & Archives. Thanks to Libby, Of This Place will include stories of mill workers, townspeople, and women.
Stories such as Mary Low Carver’s, the first woman to graduate from Colby, in 1875. And Marion Osborne’s, the first Black female graduate, in 1900. These women pioneers were previously unknown to Vogel before spending time in Special Collections with Libby during Jan Plan. Now, while Vogel dances, their stories will help inform her gestures.
At the same time, Of This Place is not a history lesson, said Pitcher. Instead, the perspective of people such as Vogel, her classmates, and the spectrum of others engaged in the project will tell stories from the past. It’s a process of looking through a modern lens at the past while also looking to make the future a better place. “A more welcoming place,” said Pitcher. “A place where more of us can belong.”
Bridge-building and bridge-keeping
Since the beginning, Cumbie has created a collaborative circle and welcomed everyone touched by the project, Libby reflected. “Matthew is so full of grace at drawing people in. I’ve never felt so safe in a group of people as I have with these performers.”
This speaks to the concept of bridge-building that’s integral to the project. While much of the project is rooted in water, especially Waterville’s Kennebec River, there’s an urge to span differences and make connections.
Staging Of This Place in the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts is about making people feel welcome in this new space. By listening intently to people’s stories, Cumbie, Pitcher, and others discovered the need to feel welcome. “This matters. It matters going forward,” said Pitcher. “I hope that whatever I have put into this script, I’ve kept it real so we can figure out what those bridges are to the future.”
Cumbie’s greatest hope is that the people who attend Of This Place can see themselves, or some part of themselves, in this larger story and in this place. For the people engaged in the project, whether for several years or a few days, he hopes they can create some sense of connection or momentum that carries beyond this project.
“I hope that the questions we’re asking continue to evolve and grow as we all grow in time together, that this is a process that we can continue to return to, explore, critique, and celebrate what it means to be here.”
Of This Place is supported by Colby’s Department of Performance, Theater, and Dance and the Colby Arts Office in collaboration with the Center for the Arts and Humanities, Special Collections & Archives in the Colby Libraries, Office of Civic Engagement, Cultural Events Committee, Department of Music, Office of the Provost, and Office of the President.