Restaging a world-reknowned choreographer's work at the University

BY SARA SCHNEIDER
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 2, 2009

With small, intricate hand movements mixed with large, frozen poses and circles of spinning bodies, choreographer Laura Dean’s work “Impact” has challenged dancers for decades.

Laura Dean is an acclaimed composer and choreographer, described by The New York Times as “unquestionably one of the masters of American modern dance.” Her choreography has also been heralded as having "the complexity of a genius.”

Last weekend, “Impact” was performed for the first time in 21 years as part of the University Dance Company’s production “Arcs in Time.” Amy Chavasse, assistant professor of Music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, successfully restaged the dance piece, allowing the innovative work to greatly influence Michigan dance students.

Catherine Coury, junior in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, expressed her experiences with Dean’s choreography on the project’s blog, which includes photographs and footage of the whole creation process. (http://deanproject2009.wordpress.com/).

“What is most exhilarating about performing Laura Dean’s choreography is that it truly is a human experience — one that can happen only by staying alert and being in the present moment,” Coury wrote.

She continued, “Spinning is something I wish to do every day of my life. Not only does it help me find my center, but it carries with it this weird and wonderful juxtaposition of making me feel larger than life in direct sync with the cosmos, and yet like a tiny, miniscule cell spinning in this great, vast universe.”

Chavasse participated as a member of the Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians during an important time in the company’s history. At the time, Dean was expanding her company to prepare for two new works, one of which was “Impact.” The work premiered on Oct. 31, 1985 and was last performed in 1988.

“It is a gift to be able to return to this work after 21 years,” Chavasse said in an e-mail interview. “I performed in the premiere at part of the prestigious Next Wave Festival at Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the final performances at New York's City Center.”

Restaging Dean’s work has allowed Chavasse to think about the differences that come with reworking the choreography of another artist, in contrast to formulating her own works.

“It's been a very interesting and enlightening shift for me to be in this role,” Chavasse said. “I devote a large part of my practice to collaborating and creating original work. Being responsible for someone else's vision is both a daunting and gratifying task, but revisiting that time of my career has brought up some questions about the nature of creative choices and how they connect to the time in which they were made.”

One challenge Chavasse faced was the selection of the dancers. There were many accomplished dancers who auditioned, but Chavasse was also looking for dedication.

“I looked for those who not only had skill and charisma,” Chavasse said, “but (dancers) who I knew really wanted to participate and who demonstrated consistent desire to undertake the overwhelmingly difficult task of learning a 27-minute dance — a very technical and challenging dance — in only three weeks.”

Chavasse admitted that she might have subconsciously chosen dancers that fit with Dean’s own taste.

“She appreciated dancers with an individual spirit, diversity and spark,” Chavasse said.

“Impact” is a challenging piece that demands strength and endurance. The work requires strong dancers due to Dean’s challenging signature choreography, which includes elaborate turning and spinning.

“Laura Dean developed a technique for spinning that is somewhat akin to the meditative spinning done by devotees of Sufism, but much, much faster, performed in complex patterns to intricate music,” Chavasse said. “It is very difficult. Some people take to it rather easily but most others are required to put in long practice sessions to build confidence. It is also deceptively exhausting and requires building stamina and aerobic proficiency.”

In the end, Chavasse ended up double-casting three positions to allow for more dancers to experience the work. Rehearsals began on Jan. 8th and ran six days a week, four hours a day in the studio before moving to the theater on Jan. 24, where the dancers and choreographers put in long hours every night.

Even the understudies were able to experience the beauty that lies within Dean’s work and gain new insight into their own dance careers.

“This whole process has altered my idea of minimalistic movement,” Kalila Smith, freshman in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, wrote on the blog. “I have often seen it as uninteresting and impossible to get into. But working with these workshops and learning this piece has given me a new perspective on minimalism.”

Chavasse is thankful that her restaging of “Impact” provided a chance for students to explore new movements, but she is still letting the whole process of creation sink in.

“Perhaps down the road, I'll be able to suss out how this project has affected my own creative choices and dance-making,” Chavasse said. “I'll be making a new solo to be performed in NYC in March ... so that should be telling.”

Though the project is now over, the effects of performing such a monumental piece will live on within the performers as well as the audiences who were lucky enough to relive this Dean restaging.