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Glimpsing Great Works

Dancer Samantha Soltis rehearses Loïe Fuller’s Fire Dance.
20th Anniversary Winter Gala offers daring dance performances

Loïe Fuller was an American modern dancer who, between the 1890s and 1920s, experimented with huge costumes and what were then brand-new electrical lighting designs but whose work has been lost to history.

Well, almost.

Next month students from the Western Michigan University dance department will perform Fire Dance, possibly Fuller’s most famous work, during the department’s annual Winter Gala Dance Concert. The event, which celebrates the department’s Great Works Dance Project, will feature six dances.

The Great Works Dance Project, which has staged 41 works since it began 20 years ago, aims to educate students about “the Picassos and Mona Lisas of our art form,” says Megan Slayter, chair of the WMU dance department. It exposes WMU dance students to works ranging from George Balanchine’s most illustrious dances to cutting-edge pieces created by up-and-coming choreographers, and it connects students with professional dancers who come to campus as visiting artists.

“Part of what we want to do as a depart-ment is make sure that our dancers are exposed to the professional dance world,” says Slayter.

Preparations for Great Works performances begin in the fall, when visiting artists arrive at WMU to work with students, teaching them a specific dance over a 10-day period.

“The process of working with a visiting artist, getting ready to perform a specific work, gives students a glimpse of what it is like working for a professional dance company,” says Slayter. An alum of WMU’s program herself, Slayter participated in the first Great Work dance ever presented at WMU, in 1997.

The first thing a visiting artist does upon arrival — whether he or she is the original choreographer or someone authorized to stage an artist’s work — is hold blind auditions for WMU dance and musical theater students. The artists are looking for dancers who can “do the work authentically,” Slayter says.

Then rehearsals begin: six- to eight-hour rehearsals over two weekends and three-hour nightly rehearsals during the week, all on top of a student’s regular academic load.

“This is physical research now,” says WMU dance professor Sharon Garber. “They’re learning, in the studio, how to create that work.”

One faculty member is assigned to be the rehearsal director for each piece, to orchestrate whatever the cast will need to bring a dance up to performance level, says Slayter. The responsibilities include not only recording the physical dance moves but also picking up on the “nuances” of the work, sometimes making a whole notebook full of notes about the “intention” behind a piece or the characters in it.

After the guest artist leaves, the rehearsal director takes over, working with students for four hours of rehearsals a week, until the performance in February. For students cast in more than one work, that rehearsal time can add up, so students cannot be cast in more than three works per year.

One of the dancers, 19-year old dance and psychology major Michael Arellano, says he doesn’t mind the rigor of the schedule. “I feel extremely privileged to have the Great Works Dance Project at WMU,” he says.

The sophomore says that the project has given him a wealth of knowledge of the different approaches to “concert dance” and that this exposure to different artistic styles is great for resume building.

In addition to Fuller’s Fire Dance, the Winter Gala will feature works by Antony Tudor, Kyle Abraham, Frank Chaves, Brian Enos and Lauren Edson. Edson’s work, Foreground, was the winner of the inaugural National Choreography Competition, in 2012, and was performed by WMU students at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., that year. The original cast of the 2012 performance, all WMU alumni now dancing professionally in New York or Chicago, will return to perform the piece.

As for passing down the pioneering brilliance of Loïe Fuller, Slayter and dance historian Jessica Lindberg Coxe reconstructed Fire Dance in 2003. Originally performed in 1896 at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City, the dance was reconstructed from newspaper reviews, original programs and photographs in archives across the globe. Since then, it has been commissioned for performances across the country, along with other reconstructed Fuller dances.

Like the Great Works Dance Project itself, these commissions ensure that as many students as possible have the opportunity to see and participate in these passing moments in dance.

“Dance is a theater production,” Slayter asserts. “There are thousands of hours of work that go into making this one ephemeral moment on stage.”

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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