Faculty, choreographers join Dance Ensemble for collaboration

Among the myriad rites of spring gracing Fredonia this past weekend, Fredonia Dance Ensemble offered a multi-sensual mood feast of movement, color, light and music. Student dancers revealed their months of hard work in pieces displaying innovative choreography, creative costumes and light design layered through a rich palette of sounds and rhythms.

Guest choreographers Jon Lehrer and Kylee Fassler joined Fredonia faculty Helen Myers, Paul W. Mockovak, Sam Kenney, and Angelika Summerton to create dances utilizing a palette of forms, providing unique opportunities for student engagement and faculty collaboration. Renowned composer Daron Hagen, who was on hand for dress rehearsal and opening night, contributed the lyrical Rapture and Regret, performed live by the ANA trio (Natasha Farny, Angela Haas and Anne Kissel), for an evocative piece choreographed by Myers, FDE founder and director and chair of the BFA dance program at Fredonia. Such professional collaborations are a signature of Myers’ leadership of the dance program.

“It’s an important part of the dance training at Fredonia,” stated Myers. “The students benefit from the opportunity to work with dance professionals by making important contacts, as well as by experiencing how other artists work in this field.”

The six dances explored a wide range of themes emergence and transition, sensuality and flirtation, fullness and loss, connection and dispersal drawing on a 20th century American landscape (modern ballet set to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; modern dance drawing on Tierney Sutton’s covers of cool jazz standards and new age piano by Michael Jones) as well as the postmodern and transnational (contemporary, athletic dances set to Philip Glass’s Orion I: Australia and a trio of contemporary artists including No Zu, Iva Nova and YACHT).

Over the course of the two-hour performance, the dancers engaged in strenuous physical movements, artfully expressing the spectrum of human emotion and dynamism. Kenney beamed with pride following the performance of the dancers in her piece, Orion I, which closed the first act, noting how hard the students had worked to overcome the physical challenges required. “They really struggled,” she said, “but they hit it exactly tonight! I feel like a proud mom.”

RaptuREgret, which opened the second act, felt like the emotional heart of the concert, connected thematically with the other pieces through repetition of an aspect such as color and mood (“regret”), form and texture (“rapture”). Hagen drew on two iconic literary texts of the 1930s to express those concepts: Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, texts dramatically different in style and subject yet each exploring the triumph and pain of human interaction, the uneasy relation of civilization to the natural world, the beauty of language and its failure in the face of the inexpressible (such as death). Dancers Adam Ali and Katie Straub invoked those ideas through Myers’s choreography highlighted by precision movement, metaphorical gesture, and facial expression in a modern ballet complemented by the ANA trio performing Hagen’s composition live on stage. Soprano Angela Haas sometimes mirrored the gestures of the dancers while singing the text in haunting emotional tones; Natasha Farny’s cello added textural layers, enhancing the mood of the piece; Anne Kissel’s piano threaded the piece together from still another direction. The effect of the whole summoned the “playpoem” Woolf believed she was writing in her genre-disrupting novel while giving us the memoir-like quality enshrined in Dinesen’s; yet the piece transcended its literary inspirations. Hagen’s musical vision, in part a tribute to his mother, was expressed through Myers’s choreography, and the dancers’ and musicians’ interpretation. The effect was a uniquely layered moment of connection revealing the elation and sorrow of the human experience, and the cyclical nature of our lives together with the natural world.

Those concepts repeated throughout the concert, taking different form and rhythm, yielding myriad possibilities for pleasure and contemplation. Lush blues and greens evaporated into arid yellow-red suns through set design, lighting and costume, reflected in the movements of the dancers. Playful switching hips and Gatzbyesque jazz steps in Rhapsody became confident fluid moves in Song for Eia, which seemed to evoke sensual emergence. Dramatic juxtaposition brought Act 1 to a riveting conclusion, the dancers’ kinetic, controlled movements through light, shadow and deep-hued blues calling us toward contemplation of the night sky and a sense of global connection (Glass composed the work for the 2004 Olympics in Athens).

Act II repeated these themes in variation, taking us across the globe through atmospheric soundscapes, pales colors contrasted with deep blues and fluid balletic movement cascading into jazzy drama in Tierney’s Suite, then letting go of narrative completely with the percussion-rich athletic dance of The Alliance. The second act pieces extended the human, natural and emotional depths and surfaces; the dancers told stories drawing on their full range of expressive modes and then showed us what happens when we let go of the story to feel connection at its most primal level. Lehrer and Fassler’s choreography explored innovative variations of their own. Continuing the jazz theme from Act 1, Fassler merged the playful with the contemplative, emergence with withdrawal. The dancers beautifully expressed these moods through literal and metaphorical blues. The act thundered to a conclusion with Lehrer’s merging of transnational music, movements and dramatic costuming. The dancers, many of whom had performed in multiple pieces throughout the concert, revealed their disciplined training, offering the audience an electric finale marked with confident, abstract movement that released the multitude of emotions generated by the concert as a whole.

Jeanette McVicker is professor of English at SUNY Fredonia.