When dancers Mattie Waters and Jules Downum looked around Chattanooga’s performance art scene after returning to to town a few years ago, they saw something very unfortunate.
“We noticed the amazing talent that exists here that was moving away to other cities to find opportunity,” says Mattie.
Mattie and Jules wanted to change that by creating more opportunities for performance artists to work — for money — here in Chattanooga. In 2017 they created the Pop-Up Project, a non-profit production company, that aims to build a stronger performance art community in Chattanooga and increase paid work for its artists.
“This is such an amazing and affordable place to live, that’s close to Atlanta and Nashville and Knoxville and Memphis, where artists can be a freelance and drive to these places but can work in their local community,” Mattie says.
The Pop-Up Project is made up of members of various ages, sizes, and ethnicities that specialize in a range of dance styles, including ballet, contemporary, modern, jazz, hip-hop, and improvisation. Though dance is at the heart of their work, the Pop-Up Project is much more than a dance troupe. Performances — which are either live or created for film — often incorporate visual art, live music, poetry, and more.Many of the performances are interactive and make the audience feel immersed in the art of the performers.
The Pop-Up Project began with site-specific film productions in which they illustrated the communities’ stories through performance art. Their most recent contemporary jazz-hop film production expressed a message of hope to the community amidst the current changes that the pandemic has brought on. The crew stood dressed in black from their masks down to their shoes. The beginning of the song set the mood for the dance with staggered ominous piano keys. The company struck poses for each of these tones and, as the piece continues, built their movements into fluidity. The climax of the piece matches the crescendo of the piano as the dancers chant together representing unity and resilience. For this piece the crew was dressed in all black, but their previous costumes ranged from tights and tutus to suspenders and sequins.
The local community plays an important role in the sustainability of creative artists, and Jules and Mattie are using their experiences and connections to grow a performing arts collective that engages directly with the community.
In May 2019, The Pop-up Project and SoundCorps presented: “Abandoned Arts 2019,” a fully immersive theatrical experience unlike anything Chattanooga had seen before. Guests were able to choose their own adventure as they explored different spaces in the old Alstom facility; complete with art installations, music, dance, cocktails, and more. Over 30 professional artists were involved in reimagining the history of the site and making it a magical night the city won’t forget.
The Pop-Up Project co-founders were quick to express their gratitude for the partners (like Anne Cader, the Board President) that believed and invested in their vision.
Jules says, “Relationships are everything in our community. Between building relationships with our dancers and honoring our words, to connecting with commission patrons, to fundraising—it’s taken a long time to build those relationships and a lot of hours and meetings, but it’s all been worth it.”
In the beginning of 2017 Mattie and Jules asked their dancers to volunteer their support and faith in their vision to grow the collective throughout the community. Nonetheless, the two were able to begin paying their dancers during the same summer.
Before the pandemic the company had been planning an immersive art project this fall that would span over seven weeks. “It was a proof of concept for a sustainable model to have a full year, round-the-clock physical immersive arts attraction where we could hire dancers to perform there all throughout the year and provide living wages for all types of creatives,” says Mattie.
They pivoted their plans when the pandemic hit and focused on producing a dynamic film focused on the story of their company and its members to continue providing jobs for local dancers.
To stay connected to their audience during these times the company used social media. The various members of The Pop-Up Project offered free Instagram Live classes and hosted online Zoom Dance Parties for anyone with access to the internet and a device.
The company is continuing with masked and socially distanced rehearsals in preparation for the upcoming production.