The Dallas Observer 2011 MasterMind Awards

The winners of our second annual art awards delve into the past and personal loss to bring new visions to Dallas

Having given up her dreams of dancing professionally at 16, Toohil studied performance at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and stayed involved in theater production. The unexpected loss and subsequent trauma she faced last winter encouraged her to return to dance in order to find her way back through the pain and darkness. Devastated, but not defeated, Toohil believed she could create, rather than destroy. After her father's death, she says, she felt a sense of purpose, as if the universe was telling her it was finally time to dance again.

"There's not a lot that you can do in the grieving process, but I didn't want to just sit around or retreat into myself," Toohil says. "I wanted to feel that, if my dad could see me, from wherever he has disappeared into the ether, he would be proud of me for moving, getting up and pushing that grieving energy out of my body. I knew I needed something to help me get over the hump of wanting to disconnect and withdraw."

Raised in western Massachusetts, Toohil first came to Dallas to pursue another passion, a long-term relationship with a "long-haired hippie" from Balch Springs, whom she met nearly a decade ago on the message boards on the Dallas-based Polyphonic Spree's website. Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a more fervent Oak Cliff evangelist. "I always felt a connection with Dallas because of the music here, but I really only thought it would be a place I would visit," she says. "Now, I'm moving everyone I know down. I look around in Oak Cliff, and these are my people."

Sarah Jane Semrad and Catherine Horsey aim to create a new utopia at La Reunion.
Sarah Jane Semrad and Catherine Horsey aim to create a new utopia at La Reunion.

Toohil's relationship with Dallas seems symbiotic. She has not only produced a piece that enriched and enlivened our arts scene, but she also shared the intimate details of her process on the Observer's culture blog, Mixmaster. Toohil says she loves Dallas because, despite the city's size, it still has the vibe of a smaller city. She feels as though she is on the ground floor of an arts revolution in a place where she can carve a niche. Unlike other cities historically saturated with world-class artists — and their egos — here, finding help with artistic projects is less about "Who do you know and what can you do for me?" than "What can we create?" she says.

That certainly rings true with regard to the help she found for Grieve. Acting as both creative director and logistical manager, Toohil was able to work out a series of deals with local business owners for rehearsal space, even cleaning one studio in exchange for time there. She says she believed patrons responded so positively because they could relate to her work from their own experiences. Ultimately, she learned that great things come to those who are willing to humble themselves and just ask.

So she asked. She held formal auditions, publicizing as much as possible, but initially gained the interest of a modest six dancers whose skills ranged greatly. Toohil pressed forward and soon found herself contacted by others who had missed the initial round of auditions but who hoped there might be room for them. Toohil added to her team an eclectic group with skill levels ranging from a professional ballroom dancer to those who had danced only in front of the bathroom mirror. For Toohil, Grieve was less about technical ability and more about individuals who were willing to confront such a personal and sensitive subject head-on. As long as they had a heartbeat, she says, the moves would find them. "Grieve wasn't about making a polished production so much as making a program for people who needed it. It was mediation through movement." Toohil tells of her struggle to cast Grieve in her forthright second Director's Notes installment on Mixmaster, "When Low Audition Turnout Becomes Surprisingly Rewarding."

Raw honesty is just how Toohil operates. As she speaks, the dancer's mannerisms are both controlled and joyful, and when she looks you in the eyes, you believe you're about to hear something unquestionably true. Today, Toohil has stepped back and reflects on the production as a vastly meaningful, but complete, period of her life. "Now, everything is pointing toward the future," she says, "I feel like I accomplished what I needed through Grieve as part of my personal process."

Toohil, who carries a notepad at all times, has returned to her eager listening, compiling playlists and finding songs that move her. She says that if she were to come across an unexpected windfall she would refocus that gift by giving back to local arts programs, investing a significant portion into developing herself as a dance and performance art teacher and squirreling some away for the future project simmering in her earbuds.

Most of all, Toohil just wants to connect with you by unabashedly sharing her pain and passion, joy and freedom. "Telling stories is really my jam," she says with a smile and shrug. "It's what turns me on."

La Reunion

Artists’ colony, social utopia

Reunion Tower stands as an indelible signature on the western edge of the Dallas skyline, but few Dallasites know the history of its namesake, La Reunion, a 19th-century artists' colony founded in 1855 by Victor Considerant, a follower of French philosopher François Marie Charles Fourier. A socialist utopian experiment in which both men and women could vote and individuals could own private land, La Reunion comprised skilled artisans from France, Belgium and Switzerland, but few, if any, farmers or ranchers. While the population initially flourished, with some accounts suggesting it reached nearly 800 at its zenith, the community quickly floundered, unable to produce adequate food. In 1860, the land that now surrounds Reunion Tower was incorporated into the city of Dallas, and the artisans dispersed, some settling in the city — along Swiss Avenue, for instance — and forever changing the cityscape.

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La Reunion. This is very interesting. When I was a boy we would play on the railroad tracks that are east of the property. I hope the City of Dallas builds the Chalk Hill Trail through there so that the folks on the South Side of the Trinity can have a place to enjoy bike rides and the outdoors.

Bill Holston
Bill Holston

great idea, great choices. La Reunion is really a special place, well worth checking out.