By Lisa Shrewsberry
Donald Laney is a gracious man and grateful artist. A pivotal member of West Virginia Dance Co. since 1996, Laney enjoys an honest day’s pay for his hard work.
As a dancer/choreographer, he and five other members receive compensation, however modest, for the on-stage crafting of blood, sweat and tears. No health insurance, granted, but perhaps they can hold down just one extra job to meet their basic needs and afford a modicum of freedom to create, rather than two or three.
“That’s the way Toneta set it up…” credits the Germany-raised Army brat, accomplished performer and University of California at Irvine graduate, recalling his early international enrichment which included class field trips touring castles and school train-rides going “to any city that wasn’t ours.”
His wanderlust brought him to Beckley to perform with Theatre West Virginia, where he discovered the modern dance company that would compel him to stay.
“We are very fortunate to get paid to do what we love. So many artists are out of work and go from job to job,” says Laney, a Mountaineer by choice and for the love of art he shares with visionary founder Toneta Akers-Toler. Akers-Toler has carried off for over three-and-a-half decades the beautifully impossible, and from the least likely locale.
“If they’re in West Virginia, they couldn’t be that good,” repeats the founder in satire, giving voice to the accursed regional misperceptions she is more than half-tired of hearing.
Akers-Toler, like her dancers, has always dug deeper in the stony mountain soil to draw attention to and support for her organization.
“We have the highest trained people housed here in Beckley,” she states, resolutely. Each time she completes a performance and is asked where they’re headquartered, she relishes the opportunity to say, “Beckley, West Virginia.” It remains a proud moment for her.
The protective mom-type has to wonder how some could export the bulk of their attention and support to outlying cities, ignoring her world-class dancers-next-door. The performers live in and actively support their community, in particular enriching West Virginia schools through the arts. If others have, with straight faces, claimed, “there’s nothing to do or see here” and gone elsewhere, they’ll have a chance to redeem themselves at the West Virginia Dance Co. annual concert this Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. at the Woodrow Wilson High School Auditorium.
“People still don’t know about us after 36 years,” explains Akers-Toler, with regret. She has invested her heart and soul as company founder and managing artistic director and choreographer to abilities such as those possessed by Laney, the likes of which are lauded in much larger cities. Yet hers and the dancers’ energies are mostly invested on generations of future dancers and dreamers, within the schools of West Virginia as the state’s only professional touring dance company. West Virginia Dance Co. reaches approximately 50,000 West Virginia students each year with their performances celebrating regional heritage and introducing world culture.