Dancing with the Stars: Students Learn from the Pros

Posted: March 22, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: March 22, 2010 at 8:20 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Mason’s School of Dance has always been home to talented students and faculty members. When the department became a school last year, it was an acknowledgment of the program’s success and professionalism.

School of Dance graduates have joined some of most prestigious companies performing today and pursued other careers in the arts. During their time at Mason, many of these students get their first glimpse into the professional world of dance and the opportunity to meet some of the most prominent figures in the field.

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

Each year, the School of Dance welcomes numerous professional artists as part of its guest artist and residency programs. Through these programs, the school has cultivated many relationships with choreographers and companies such as Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and David Parsons.

These connections, including a long-lasting relationship with Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), have helped raise the level of the dance program to a top-level repertory company.

Morris, an American dancer, choreographer and director, formed MMDG in 1980 and has since created more than 120 works for the company. His connection to Mason began when professor Susan Shields joined the dance faculty in 1996, followed by assistant professor Dan Joyce three years later. Shields performed with MMDG several times during her career, and Joyce was a company member for 10 years.

“Some of the things I learned from Mark Morris that I hope to pass on to my students are his strong work ethic and attention to the detail and musicality of a piece,” says Joyce.

“Although Mark’s work possesses great versatility, there is always a sense of humanity and community in them that unites the dancers and audience.”

The Mason Dance Company performed its first Morris piece, “Marble Halls,” in its annual Gala Concert in 2001. Since then, the School of Dance has performed his pieces in its Gala Concert every other year. In addition, during the company’s yearly visit to the Concert Hall, Morris rehearses with the students and teaches master classes.

Morris also welcomes dance majors to his workshops each summer and allows the dance program to use his New York studio for auditions.

Stephanie Locey, a junior dance major, has had the opportunity to perform two of Morris’ works and considers it a great honor to be trusted with the choreography of a respected individual within the international dance community.

“Mason is one of the few places that can provide its students the experience of working hands on with professionals of such high caliber,” says Locey. “It was these types of opportunities that attracted me to Mason and has given me a great understanding of the dance field.”

Several alumni have gone on to perform with or become company members of MMDG: Rita Donahue, BFA ’02; Billy Smith, BFA ’07; Durell Comedy, BFA ’08; Prentice Whitlow, BFA ’09; and Karen Reedy, BFA ’95 (now Mason assistant professor of dance).

“In the School of Dance, we try to simulate the professional environment as much as possible and bring some of the most accomplished choreographers to the students,” says Buffy Price, director.

“Even if they don’t become professional dancers, most of our graduates work to keep dance in their lives, and we feel very proud to have earned the respect of these professional artists.”

Just Like the Pros

Producing the annual Gala Concert is a complex process. Determining the pieces to be performed depends on several factors, such as the types of dancers in the program and the availability of the piece and a company member or choreographer to teach the dance to the students.

Once the dance program receives permission to perform the piece, a member of the company or choreographer holds auditions on campus and chooses the dancers.

This individual then spends an intense week assigning the work to the students and will often request videos and photographs of the students rehearsing to ensure that the costumes and the work itself is being presented in a professional manner.

“There are very few dance programs in the country that are able to perform the types of works that we perform at Mason,” says Price.

“Because the university has a commitment to the arts, the Concert Hall enables us to have a professional staff of more than 50 people who are behind the scenes supporting us.”

In addition, the dance program works with professional stage management and lighting designers. Costumes are re-created and built by Cat Buchanan, dance wardrobe coordinator.

A Gala Event

This year, the Mason Dance Company will perform the choreography of four American modern dance masters at the annual Gala Concert on Friday, March 26, and Saturday, March 27, at 8 p.m. in the Concert Hall.

Bringing back a piece first performed in 1998, the company will open the program with Doug Varone’s “Strict Love.” The work features seven dancers and is set to a soundtrack of a radio broadcast of popular music from the 1970s.

The company will also perform Jacqulyn Buglisi’s “Atom Hearts Club Suite No. 1,” a work for 13 dancers set to music ranging from classic to rock, and Christopher d’Amboise’s “Opus 100,” a work for seven dancers set to Shubert’s Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 100. D’Amboise, assistant professor of dance, created the piece for the dance program’s advanced students in 2009.

As one of only a handful of university dance troupes allowed to perform the entire piece, the Mason Dance Company will conclude the Gala Concert with Morris’ “Grand Duo.” This is the fifth Morris piece performed by the company and is written for 14 dancers. The piece will be set to live music by the Valtchev-Tchekoratova Duo, a violinist and pianist.

Tickets for the Gala Concert are $20; $12 for students, staff and seniors; and $10 for groups of 10 or more. To purchase tickets, call 888-945-2468 or visit tickets.com.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu