Dancing in Stages

The third floor of Crozier-Williams is a rarely visited place. Home to the dance department, either you live there, or you’ve never been. It is accessible by stairways at the building’s front and rear, and is home to two connected dance studios.

One is Myers, an impressively professional and large studio, the one we proudly show off to tours and visiting artists, imbued with the presence of dance festivals of the past. It is the part of the dance department that is boastful and proud, that stars in a production, that moves to New York and starts its own dance company.

Then there’s West, the smaller, more careful studio. It is an offshoot of Myers; a lesser-known baby brother that’s dependent on its big sibling for survival. (The lights in West can only be turned on in Myers.)

Outside are the offices, a Savile Row of professors, including director David Dorfman, Shani Collins, Lisa Race, Heidi Henderson and Adele Myers, all of whom have their own companies. The hallway is filled with posters from shows old and new, and sign-up sheets for advisory meetings.

A walk through the long stretch of studios and offices leads you to an open carpeted space, lined with photographs, couches and often the dancers themselves. This is a place of rest, of waiting, of a drink of water, of an extra stretch: the dance department is likely the only academic concentration that has a space like this.

When I climbed the stairs to the third floor last week, I found the senior dance majors sprawled out in this open area, which I later found out was called the “dance lounge.” Along with serving its aforementioned duties, it is also a place for sleeping — when I arrived, there was a body curled in the corner of a couch, fading into the upholstery, avoiding notice.

No one saw it until five minutes into the interview, when the body shifted, awoke and realized where it was. Everyone laughed, including the sleeper, who was a friend of the group.

There are six senior dance majors: Charlotte Rosen, Amy Smith, Morgan Griffin, Audrey MacLean, Ana Fiore and Christina Stabile. Rosen sits cross-legged in front of me in stylish bright colored pants; she is vibrant and sunny. To her left is Griffin, who, in one of the posters for the show, sits at a piano bench in a grey, sparkling evening dress that is both elegant and subtle. Her speaking voice is low and clear. Smith, a double major in chemistry and dance, has a flip camera in hand, recording footage of the interview to be screened before the shows. MacLean sits atop a large felt heart; a prop, she later tells me with a smile, which should’ve been completed last week. Fiore will later command the conversation, quiet but fierce; Stabile, a more careful speaker, turns out to be one of the most poignant.

All semester, the six have been collaborating on Stages, the senior thesis dance concert, being performed on April 19, 20 and 21. It is the final project of the required senior seminar to complete the major, but to the six, Stages represents much more. The seminar doesn’t gloss over the dirty parts of production in favor of the glamour: the six of them also cover production, design, budget, community outreach, publicity, photography and aesthetics, in addition to choreography. Rosen terms the production “completely self-sufficient.”

The title of the show came from contemplating the show’s posters – artfully photographed and often metaphorical in concept, the posters will no doubt be as talked about as the show itself – and finding a setting that would represent the tone of the show: related, but dramatically different. Every poster’s backdrop, as a result, is on a different stage in the New London area.

“It’s a double meaning,” explains Griffin. “The most literal interpretation is that we’re all performing on a stage, but there are also stages of our growth. This is our final stage at Conn.”

“We’re all at different stages of what we’re interested in, too,” says MacLean. This is true – all of the dancers are headed to extremely different venues after graduation, including graduate school, moving to New York and instructing dance at a boarding school.

Griffin cites professor and mentor Adele Myers, who choreographed a seniors-only piece, open to all students, major notwithstanding, with involvement in the department. According to Myers, a piece can transform wherever you go, dependent on the stage. Her piece, “The Dancing Room,” is a group favorite because it shares recognition among the majors, minors and the avid class-takers; it is also, they wistfully note, the last time they’ll all dance together.

“The Dancing Room” is part of a larger evening-length project, “Einstein’s Happiest Thought,” a multidisciplinary investigation into the physical state of imbalance as potential freedom.  Featuring the troupe Adele Myers and Dancers in collaboration with Blanche Boyd, Josh Quillen and filmmaker Emmy Pickett, “Einstein’s Happiest Thought” will premiere as part of the Connecticut College onStage Performance series February 1, 2013.

Stages will contain the aforementioned piece by Myers; a collaboration with choreographer David Parker and the Bang Group; two solos choreographed by Jennifer Nugent and Kendra Portier, danced by Fiore and Griffin, respectively; and “Sky Light,” a piece by Laura Dean, which, after Stages’ last show, won’t ever be performed again. First performed in 1982, “Sky Light,” as the dancers tell me, is a long, aerobic piece, with live drumming, that will be performed by Griffin, Fiore, MacLean, juniors Amy Gernux and Rachel Pritzlaff, and sophomore Nicole Witko. Griffin and Fiore reset the piece for the concert. The group tells me that the artist has taken the rights away, choosing to retire her work, after their showing.

The core of the show, however, is the work choreographed by each student. The bond between the six of them is more than friendship: they are all colleagues and collaborators, and they take each other – their critiques, their compliments – very seriously. The shared respect is evident.

I ask each dancer to describe her piece. They try for a few seconds, but it seems like no one can. MacLean suggests that they describe each other’s pieces. The light bulb has been turned on.

Rosen’s piece is a continuation of “Stomping Ground,” her project for the dance club show. “When I choreograph, I’m interested in seeing the dancers enjoy themselves,” she says. She later terms her inspiration to work as coming from her love to “move, enjoy myself and be alive.” She created a specialized thesis that concentrated in teaching, including the advanced dance class at the Williams School, the members of which are her cast.

“Char approaches the audience in a different way than most,” says Fiore. “She creates an exciting opportunity for the audience.”

“It’s a sophisticated dance party!” says Griffin.

“That’s perfect,” says Rosen, beaming. “Make sure you write that down. Sophisticated dance party.”

Smith’s project is in two parts. The first is Broadway-inspired, much like her training before entering Conn; the second is comprised of movement generated from her advanced composition class. The movement is calm, peaceful and reminiscent of a stream. “It’s like a current that moves and repeats across the stage.”

“I think all the pieces are indicative of who we are as dancers and as humans – Amy’s piece is exactly how I think of her: there’s crazy jazz-hands Amy, but then there’s the calmer, quieter side of her,” MacLean tells me. The others nod in agreement.

Griffin’s piece has both performance and choreography components. Kendra Portier, from Dorfman’s company, choreographed a solo for Griffin, and the two worked together to create the structure for it within her larger project. The second part of the piece is Griffin’s attempt to tie both parts of the dance department together.

“It plays with influence from gymnastics and figure skating,” says Griffin, a former figure skater herself. “The concept is the idea of perfection in athleticism.” When searching for adjectives to describe Griffin’s piece, the group dubs it “rigorous and impressive.”

MacLean is still working on the large felt heart. (She finishes it by the end of the day.) She tends toward more minimalist, pedestrian movement, and is very concerned with who the dancers are, individually, and how they work with each other. MacLean also aims to build a relationship with the audience in her work; she leaves the lights on the audience during her piece.

“The dancers being able to see the audience changes how people dance. They become more self-aware. It’s easy to imagine a lot of strangers when you’re onstage and it’s dark.”

“Audrey is great at setting up expectations and doing something counter to that,” says Fiore. “Her piece is very funny, in a subtle way, in that things are constantly surprising you.”

Fiore’s project focuses on performance. She commissioned choreographer Jennifer Nugent of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for the piece, after working with her over many years. The piece is ritualistic and built around a circle.

“The movement is very…” Fiore struggles for words. “Squiggly?”

Someone else offers their opinion. “But I also feel like it’s very… statuesque?”

Fiore agrees. “And squiggly.”

“Ana’s piece is very internal, which is different than how she generally performs – she is very open to the audience,” says Griffin.

Stabile’s piece is about “dance for dance’s sake.” There’s a lot of big movement, bright colors, and music inspired by her father, a former French horn player. “The piece was created for the dancers to enjoy.”

“Christina’s movement requires one to be technically proficient, so it’s really a display of technical rigor that we strive for here,” says Fiore.

A large part of the dance major is a daily class in ballet and modern facility: the students are both artists and technicians.

The show is called Stages partially out of an effort to create a title that encompasses all of the highly varying pieces, without a lofty, deeply metaphorical title of past performances.  “A lot of times, there’s been an aesthetic that runs through all the pieces that is very similar. When you go to a senior show, you’re expecting to see the same thing, but the six of us have such different backgrounds,” says MacLean.

“Accessibility is a major part of what we try to do each year, to make dance accessible and not to make it seem like some elitist thing that no one else can be a part of,” says Fiore.

“With this show, people who don’t usually come to dance shows will see something they like and enjoy and can relate to,” finishes Smith.

All agree that they took this emphasis on accessibility and artistic unity into account in the creation of their pieces. MacLean aptly summarizes the group’s approach to accessibility: a refusal to abandon personal taste or creativity, but an embrace of the audience and the hope that everyone will find something to like.

“Dance searches for a reaction,” says Griffin. “Sometimes if people have a negative reaction, they feel shut out – but the same thing happens to dancers. It’s okay not to understand it all the way.”

“We’re not looking for a right answer,” interjects Fiore. “You’re not a better person or smarter if you get the same concept that we have. We want to hear what people have to say about our work, and, usually, that is far more interesting and profound than what we originally came up with.”

Part of the common criticisms of the dance shows – all the same, difficult to understand, boring – is related to more general criticisms of dance as a major. For many, the concept of dance as a major instead of a mere hobby – particularly with a $50,000 price tag – is ludicrous.

The seniors clearly disagree. “There’s a misconception that all we do is sit around the dance studio and hold hands,” says MacLean, prompting everyone’s laughter. Fiore gives me a quick sketch of the requirements for the major: along with the five technique classes a week, there are several mandated academic classes, including dance history, anatomy and physiology and dance writing. All majors are required to stage manage a show, and many of them find themselves in daily five-hour rehearsals. They deserve a lounge.

“There’s so much outside time that’s required that people don’t give consideration,” says Stabile. “They think it all just happens.”

“The dualism of dance is that you have to train every single day for the physicality and technique, but dance is also conceptual. You work to improve technically, but also how you create and think about movement,” says Griffin.

“This is an academic pursuit. We bring the same drive and attention to it that people bring to every other major,” says Fiore.

Stabile sits in the corner, hidden from view, due to Smith’s height. Quieter than her peers since the description of her piece, she pipes up with the drive, determination and loyalty each dancer emanates.

“It’s not a hobby anymore.”

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