The house was almost completely full of students, professors and community members, all anxious to take in the dancers on stage when two performers entered unexpectedly from stage left. As they welcomed the audience to the show, there was something peculiar about their movements; they were exact replicas of each other, moving in tandem around the entire theater.
Suddenly, another pair entered from the lobby, another from the backstage doors, and the concert began.
Every year, the School of Theatre and Dance welcomes a guest company into Forbes Center for the Performing Arts to work with its dance majors on The New Dance Festival, a two-night performance on the Mainstage Theatre. This year, JMU dancers got to perform with DanceWorks Chicago, a professional company built for up-and-coming dancers in the Chicago area. The students were given the opportunity to collaborate with the company through master classes and rehearsals in preparation for this year’s concert.
Ryan Corriston, a professor of dance in his seventh year at JMU, said he was blown away by the confidence and knowledge of this group — comprised of 18-24-year-olds — who took over teaching his classes for the past week.
“For our students to have a week, hands-on, in the studio with company members learning a professional choreographer’s piece is really unique,” Corriston said. “A guest artist experience [is becoming] harder and harder to come by, so for our students to have that is fantastic.”
Residencies like this one allow students to network with dancers in the professional world who may provide them with opportunities in the future. Sophomore dance major Isabel Robles participated in DanceWorks Chicago’s summer intensive this year and was able to perform in the piece titled cut, “the rate in which I am,” taught by the guest company.
“Coming here, I felt like I learned a lot from watching the company members, and I wanted to translate that into my dancing and see what I could do differently,” Robles said.
The first act of the performance featured JMU dance majors and included two pieces choreographed by JMU faculty members, one of which was performed by JMU alumna Heather Lundy. The opening number, “Having Words,” was especially unique as the dancers moved throughout the audience, interacting with individuals through improvised speech mixed with choreographed movement.
“And they continued,” choreographed by Corriston and 13 dancers from his repertory class last semester, explored the ideas of home and belonging through modern dance. Corriston said he challenged his dancers to be present in this dance.
“Don’t think about performing, don’t think about what the audience is getting,” he told them. “Think about your own experience in it, your own journey with it, and if you’re having one, then the audience will go on a journey too.”
The third piece, “Betty in a Box: The Diagnosis,” was a comedic dance combined with spoken text and an elaborate set. Shane O’Hara, dance faculty member, described the inspiration for the dance, which came from Lundy’s real struggle with chronic illness and her recent move to Costa Rica.
The final piece of the first act, “the rate in which I am,” featured 10 female dancers including Jessica Eurom, a senior dance major.
“The piece is about the rate in which we live, the rhythms of our lives and the moments of stillness within the moments [that are] quick and fast-paced,” she said. “For each dancer, it becomes very individual, but at the same time, we’re acting as a community which is something really empowering as well.”
This concert possessed a particular challenge for JMU dancers since it opened only two weeks after the start of the school year. The process was split up over two semesters because the dancers learned the choreography in the spring, went away on summer break and then came back to it this fall.
“It was really interesting to stick with a work for this long and to see it change over the course of just learning it to now finally performing it,” Eurom said. “Even performing it in the concert this week, it’s not in its final stage. It’s still growing, it’s really exciting.”
Following a 10-minute intermission, DanceWorks Chicago took over and performed five diverse pieces from a parody of Olympic sports against the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” to an emotional duet titled “Pack: And for All the Lost Ones.” The company of six equally diverse performers exuded personality and passion in each dance they presented.
During the talk-back after the show, the co-founder and artistic director of DanceWorks Chicago, Julie Nakagawa, spoke to what she looks for in a dancer.
“You saw six unique humans up here, which is what we aim for,” Nakagawa said. “Dance is the vehicle, it’s our language, [but] it’s not the only thing that defines us.”
The dancers revealed this was their first performance of the season with new company members. When the audience found out they learned five dances only two weeks ago, the audience went silent. It’s safe to say, the silence was a positive reaction.
Not only were all of the pieces dynamic and distinct, the concert featured more student dancers than past concerts and provided a unique opportunity for collaboration between students and professionals. The future of the New Dance Festival seems to be one of growth and diversification that will continue to strengthen the presence of the dance program on JMU’s campus.
Contact Ryann Sheehy at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.