During the first week of fall quarter, ten Western students in the dance program got together and held open auditions. The students selected the dancers they wanted and then began the whirlwind process of creating a performance piece to be shown on the Performing Arts Center Mainstage just two months later.
This is all just part of the curriculum in Western’s dance program and is offered as the final course of the choreography sequence. Instead of attending a lecture, the students in this course are responsible for the development of a dance piece that will culminate in a final performance showcasing each of their pieces. The performance is called Fall Into Dance, and it is an annual event put on through the dance department. This year it will be on November 29 and 30, as well as December 1 at 7:30 p.m. in the PAC.
The show is entirely choreographed and performed by students, although they do have access to and support from their instructor, Professor of Dance Nolan Dennett. This year the show will also be entirely teched by students, featuring student stage managers and lighting designers from the theater department.
“This is one of the first times that the theater and the dance program have in fact collaborated, so the dancers feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven, or they’ve been good boys and girls and Santa Claus has come to town,” Dennett said. “It’s a luxury to have the support from the theater department and we’re very, very happy about that.”
The show is a modern dance show, which is a form of dance structured around the idea of tossing out structure.
“When we say modern dance, we are not talking about contemporary dance, so we’re not talking about street dancing or hip-hop. It’s not that at all,” Dennett explained. “It’s putting aside the formulas that were characterized by ballet, the specific vocabulary as well as the subject matter. A better name for modern dance would be dance of ideas, because it reinvents itself every time. It is not an easy art form. It’s a challenge. It’s high art when it’s done well.”
This year’s show will be larger than typical, featuring more choreographers than ever before. Dennett also said this year’s choreographers have accomplished something that is somewhat of a rarity – surprising him.
“This might sound blasphemous, but sometimes being a teacher is like being God because you can look at whose coming into the room and you pretty much know what they’re going to do,” Dennett said. “You’re just sort of waiting for that student that will surprise you and then you go, ‘Oh, wow!’ and you feel like life has meaning. A number of the choreographers this year have surprised me and I don’t usually get surprised.”
Dennett described this year’s pieces as “radically different as the minds of the students who thought them up.” He said one dance will feature two lovers who are right for each other but it doesn’t work out, another will center on fertility goddesses performing a sacred rite, while in another the choreographer will have her dancers create a rhythmic score for the piece by making music with wine bottles.
Choreographer Juliette Machado is working on one of the largest pieces in the entire show. Her piece will feature 14 dancers and will be split into three sections. The first two will feature only some of the dancers while the last section will bring all of them together.
Machado explained that each of the choreographers must keep a rehearsal journal that shows they are integrating what they have learned from their earlier choreography classes. The students are graded on their journal and their final performance output. The journal must outline the choreographer’s process, showing that they have a plan but that they are also open to letting things develop as rehearsals progress.
“I’ve liked seeing things come together unplanned,” Machado said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than [when] you have a general idea, and you give people general prompts, but then something just happens and it clicks and it looks really interesting.”
In contrast to Machado’s piece, Grace Adkins, another choreographer for the show, is working with just two dancers.
“This piece is kind of a vulnerable piece for me because it’s super emotional,” Adkins said. “Throughout the first two quarters of choreography I have kind of struggled a lot with what I wanted my choreography to say and how I wanted to portray it. In this piece I let all of that go and just put myself into it.”
Choreographer Abigail Kerns demonstrated another unique way to approach the piece. Kerns began by picking the music she wanted her dancers to perform to before deciding on a single move they would make.
“A lot of people chose to start with movement first, but I chose to start with music and I’m letting the music dictate a lot of my movement and sometimes it even verges on music visualization,” she explained.
Her dance has a 1960s theme and will feature five dancers. Kerns said she was drawn to music from the 1960s because it was a time period of social change and unrest, which she said is reflected in the music from that time.
“I hope that by letting the music dictate what movement we do that will be reflected then in the movement as well,” she said.
Kerns, Adkins and Machado all said there is a special feeling about working in a show that is entirely choreographed by students.
“It really allows you to feel like you have control over your piece,” Kerns said. “Nolan always says that we get to make the final decisions and that is a really empowering feeling.”
All three are eagerly anticipating the moment when their piece is out of their hands and they will sit back and watch it.
“I’m just so excited to see them on-stage and be able to sit in the audience and be like ‘oh my gosh, that’s mine, I created that,’” Adkins said.
All of the choreographers and their professor advised students to come to the performance without any expectations of what they are about to see.
“The tricky thing for students who are seeing Fall Into Dance is that quite often we go to dance concerts expecting to see a story,” Dennett explained. “That’s sort of like going to a symphony and expecting to be told what’s happening. You’re going to be disappointed and frustrated if you went to a symphony and said ‘Is this about the big bad wolf and is that trombone the wolf and is the violin Little Red Riding Hood?’ You’re not going to do that, you’re going to sit there and let the music wash over you and your own emotions are going to form what you hear.”
Machado echoed those sentiments, and said while students should expect the unexpected, everyone will find something they can enjoy.
“It is a modern dance performance, so you never really know what you’re going to get. This year is a really eclectic mix and there’s a lot of us, so you just get a buffet of different takes on modern dance,” Machado said.
Dennett encouraged students to come not just to this performance, but to vigorously seek out opportunities to attend an array of different events on campus.
“You’ll never have this time in your life again where you can run across campus and listen to a piece of baroque music and you can run across campus and see an art show of faculty members doing stuff on a certain theme and you can run across campus to a scientific thing. These students will never have those experiences again, take advantage, it will form the rest of your life,” Dennett said.