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Three Dances, Three Collaborations

Story by
Nancy Joseph

There will be something old, something new, and something borrowed at the Dance Program’s concert on January 18-19, 2013. 

The concert, Faculty Dance/Collaborations, will feature a classic José Limón dance from 1971, a new work choreographed by Jennifer Salk, and Jürg Koch’s reinterpretation of the iconic The Rite of Spring, featuring two dozen dancers. Salk, a Donald E. Petersen Endowed Faculty Fellow, and Koch are faculty in the UW Dance Program. 

Dancers rehearse the beginning of Jürg Koch's The Rite of Spring.

Dancers rehearse the beginning of Jürg Koch's The Rite of Spring.   Media credit: Steve Korn

“We will be in the big theatre at Meany, which gives us the ability to do things on a larger scale,” says Betsy Cooper, director of the Dance Program, the College’s interim divisional dean of arts, and Thomas L. and Margo G. Wyckoff Endowed Faculty Fellow. Cooper explains that the concert is traditionally performed in the more intimate Meany Studio Theatre. 

As its name suggests, Faculty Dance/Collaborations features collaborations with other art units on campus. The costumes for Salk’s and Koch’s dances are being designed by School of Drama executive director Sarah Nash Gates and built by Drama's costume shop. Music for Salk’s piece will be performed by School of Music (SoM) professor Melia Watras and Seattle Symphony's Kimberly Russ. The Stravinsky score for The Rite of Spring will play on two disklaviers—programmable pianos, provided by Yamaha—programmed by DXARTS staffer Josh Parmenter (MA, DMA, 2002, 2005) and SoM doctoral students Shih-Wei Lo and Anna Stachurska. SoM lecturer Dainius Vaicekonis (DMA, 2004) will perform the Chopin score for Dances for Isadora. Richard Karpen, SoM director, has provided music performance conceptual design for the concert.

“The Dance Program loves to collaborate,” says Cooper. “Dancers and choreographers are always collaborating with each other, with musicians, and with designers. Since I’ve been in the Dean’s Office, I’ve wanted to tap the expertise of our faculty and make our collaborations more visible.”

Living Room, Stage Right

The music collaboration will be particularly visible in Salk’s piece, A Small Piece of the Story, which has Watras and Russ sharing the stage with nine undergraduate dancers. The musicians will perform at one corner of the stage designed to resemble a living room—with a couch, a carpet, and a grand piano for Russ; the dancers will relax on the couch when they are not dancing in the larger, open space. 

“I wanted the musicians on the stage, not in the pit,” explains Salk. “My hope is that, as dancers move in and out of this space, there will be a connection between the dancers and musicians the whole time.” Salk adds that the idea for the living room came from her memories of weekend concerts in relatives’ living rooms after dinner. “They are some of my fondest memories,” she says. 

Choreographing A Small Piece of the Story, Salk always kept in mind that her dancers are students and that the concert is another teaching opportunity. She introduced movements that would challenge students without endangering them, including partnering work that was new to many of them. With Salk as their guide, the dancers tried dozens of movement phrases, keeping what worked and scrapping what didn’t. 

“They need guidance, but they are amazing,” says Salk. “They are so open and willing to try anything and they come up with great ideas. It’s a joy watching them move.”

Student Nicole Rover (left) and Brenna Monroe-Cook  during a rehearsal for Dances for Isadora.

Student Nicole Rover (left) and Brenna Monroe-Cook  during a rehearsal for Dances for Isadora.  Photo by Jacob Lambert. Media credit: Jacob Lambert

Homage to a Dance Legend 

Students performing in Dances for Isadora had a different, but equally memorable, experience. Rather than being part of a dance’s creation, they were tasked with performing an historically important dance by José Limón, one of the great choreographers of the 20th century. Former Limón Dance Company member Brenna Monroe-Cook (MFA, 2011), now a lecturer in the Dance Program, led the rehearsals; Jennifer Scanlon, who performed Dances for Isadora with José Limón in the 1970s, visited the UW for ten days in November to restage the work, passing down all her knowledge. 

Jennifer Scanlon in a solo from  Dances For Isadora in 1971.

Jennifer Scanlon in a solo from 
Dances For Isadora in 1971.

“You can’t do the solos in Dances for Isadora with authenticity unless you understand the artistic intent,” says Cooper. “Jennifer was in the original cast and performed two of the five solos, so she was able to share her embodied knowledge of that work. It was amazing for our students.” 

Cooper explains that Dances for Isadora is Limón’s homage to dance legend Isadora Duncan, taking the audience through her life and incorporating movements from her dances while maintaining the distinct Limón style. That style involves what Cooper describes as “suspension without tension,” as dancers suspend movement in a specific way.

“You can always tell a Limón dancer,” says Cooper. “They have a very distinct way of moving through space. You have to learn that from someone who understands the technique.” Monroe-Cook, who spent five years in the Limón Dance Company, is uniquely qualified to work with students on this piece and is one reason Cooper chose Dances for Isadora for the concert. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for all involved,” she says.

A New Take on an Iconic Dance

The final dance in the concert, Koch’s newly choreographed The Rite of Spring, is an ambitious undertaking that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the original production of The Rite of Spring. The 1913 production, with dissonant music by Igor Stravinsky and provocative choreography by Vaslav Nijinksy, elicited such strong responses from astonished audiences that it led to a riot in the Paris theatre where it was performed. (See related story in this issue of Perspectives.) “Before that, ballet was the fairy tale, the exotic, the spectacle,” says Koch. “Rite dealt with very different subject matter, and it took such a different form and vocabulary in expressing it.” 

Koch will use Stravinsky’s music—to be performed on two programmed disklaviers—and incorporate many of the themes from Nijinsky’s dance, but he will put his own twist on it, as other choreographers have before him. “The great thing about The Rite of Spring is that it touches on such fundamental aspects of life: sex, death, regeneration, the precariousness of life,” says Koch. “That’s what makes it such an enduring ballet.” 

Kristin Hapke and Pamela Gregory rehearse a duet from Jürg Koch's  The Rite of Spring.

Kristin Hapke and Pamela Gregory rehearse a duet from Jürg Koch's  The Rite of Spring.  Media credit: Steve Korn

Given its themes of regeneration, Koch knew he wanted his piece to be intergenerational. His cast of 24 dancers includes grade school children, UW students and recent alumni, professional dancers, and community members, including some past retirement age. Koch has tasked the students and professional dancers with mentoring the less experienced dancers, particularly the children, resulting in some wonderful pairings. 

As the dance begins, all 24 dancers press together on stage, then slowly dissipate into smaller groups, revealing connections and fissures. Several sections of the dance capture family interactions; one family features a traditional male/female couple, but others feature two men, two women, or a single parent. “They all represent family,” says Koch. By the end of the dance, all 24 dancers are on stage again, moving to the “musically complex, relentless” conclusion of Stravinsky’s score.

The scope of the production, and its iconic lineage, are exciting for Koch. “The most challenging aspect is that the score is so big and it has a very specific duration,” says Koch. “It’s the longest piece I’ve worked on, as well as the largest cast and the longest rehearsal process. And working with an experienced designer like Sarah Nash Gates on the costumes has been different and wonderful for me. Usually, on our shoestring budget, you do everything yourself.”

What does Koch hope audiences take away from his centennial version of The Rite of Spring? “If it shifts perception—how we think of this piece, how we think of who a dancer is, and maybe even how we think about family and society—I will consider it a success,” says Koch. “And I hope that it is a visceral experience for the audience…although this time around, I’d prefer there be no riots.”