The evening begins with satin-clothed villagers ducking between trees, then moves on to a woman’s cathartic duet with a vacuum cleaner and ends with ritual sacrifice.
The entire class of undergraduates and graduates in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s dance department performs in their annual Power Center performances, beginning tonight and continuing through the weekend. The five pieces presented are new or developing works by faculty and guest choreographers, worked out with about 60 dancers over the course of the Fall semester. The Power Center performance showcases the department’s breadth and versatility – both in the dancers themselves and the creative minds behind the pieces.
This year’s show derives its theme from the department’s most enthusiastically received Power Center performance in 1989, “Viva Stravinsky,” which focused on the music of the highly influential Russian composer. “Revisited” re-interprets the composer’s contributions to music for dance.
“Stravinsky made it reputable to work with dance,” said Angela Kane, who become chair of the dance department this fall. “People in the music world saw how Stravinsky was opened up, creatively, via dance, and saw: well, maybe there is something to dance.” She described the way status relationships between composers and choreographers changed during the 20th century when Stravinsky was working.
In recent years, interdisciplinary collaborations have become “a meeting of minds,” Kane said. Faculty member and artistic director Jessica Fogel developed her piece with Stephen Rush, a professor in the music department. The result is a haunting piece with swells of Stravinsky audible under acoustic piano.
“As a choreographer, I actually prefer not to work with music first,” Fogel said. “Stephen did piano improvisations while watching some dance on video, and I chose the one I thought worked best.”
It’s an effective collaboration, and features the magnetic Tomoko Takedani, a second-year MFA student. Takedani is looking forward to the chance to branch out into professional performance after graduation, but she spoke of relishing this event since it brings together all the dance students.
“The grad program is only two years – we come and we go,” she said. “One great thing about this piece is getting to know each other.”
And dancers get to know each other quickly. “Maybe 30 days after the program starts we audition, we get cast, we don’t know anyone in the program – but then we get thrown into rehearsal,” Takedani said.
Takedani’s background (she’s originally from Japan) helped inspire material for prominent guest choreographer Rennie Harris’s contribution, “Heaven.” The final work is an astounding combination of hip hop, modern and butoh influences. It has its dancers prowling low to the ground and laughing in convulsions that border on “popping.”
Kane spoke of the particularly gratifying structure of this performance. “You see all of our students over the first four pieces, then you see some of them again in Rennie’s piece. And it’s so different a piece – it’s stretched them in a very new way.”
Video projection and props are incorporated into a few of the pieces, including “Swimming the English Channel” by dance Prof. Amy Chavasse. Her eclectic piece began as a thought experiment on the significant events happened during the years Stravinsky was writing. “I didn’t know how else to find my way into it,” Chavasse said. “I was overwhelmed by his vast body of work.” She suggested that her references to the first woman to cross the English Channel and the murder of Trotsky, while amusing in their own right, helped her frame the composer’s work.
“It’s not meant to be obvious, but I do like giving people more context and background,” she said. “When you know the reasons why something happened, it becomes a lot more fascinating.”
Her point would be supported by Kane, who comes to the department from the University of Surrey, bringing experience in teaching and administration with her – particularly expertise in dance history. She said that during the 20th-century, history as a discipline changed from being considered a science to being incorporated into the humanities.
“Now, historians treat a history book as fictional,” Kane said. “We tell stories. The critique of how that develops – that’s the hat I bring.”
“You have to accept that the arts do enrich the University,” Kane said. “You can’t quantify it, but you can see it.” The need to quantify the value of a discipline can be a struggle for the department. Recently, the Dance Students Assembly won one battle, receiving a special dance floor supported by springs that can be placed on hard stage floors. But Chavasse and her colleagues chafed under infrastructure inadequacies in recent rehearsals, where two dancers who had suffered injuries had to scramble for treatment.
Kane spoke of the expansion of the academic treatment of dance she hopes to encourage. “Some of the faculty have got really great minds as well as huge expertise in performance,” she said. “I want them to be able to disseminate what they know and critique what they know.”
For Takedani, who hopes to teach dance in the future, the mission is similar. “I feel it’s my calling to spread this wealth to society,” she said. “We all have a body and we live this body every day and we don’t pay attention to it.”
This habitual disuse of the body’s potential seems apparent after watching performances as athletic and focused as those happening tonight. It’s a “learning moment,” wholly appropriate for an institution dedicated to making them.