Black combat boots worn with puffy 50’s prom dresses are not exactly normal dance attire. For five Knox students, however, said combination has started to become a second skin.
Seniors Kate Cochran and Cassidy Bires, and sophomores Laura Mogilevsky, Emma Poland and Rachel Lyman are currently members of Back & to the Left Productions, a professional dance company founded in 2000 by associate professor of dance Jennifer Smith. As part of this experience, the group will perform Smith’s piece “What Girls Are Made Of” Wednesday, Nov. 4 at Dance Chicago. Dance Chicago is a multi-day event designed to give a taste of the many dance companies choreographing, producing and performing in Chicago.
Smith originally choreographed the piece back in 1995. The work, which Smith described as a “dance comedy,” is set at a high school prom. The dancers stumble around drunkenly, using wildly exaggerated movements and often tipping over onto each other. Even while executing excellent dance technique, their characters provide physical humor, acting careless with traditionally treasured prom dresses and seeming disconnected from their movements.
“It’s poking fun at being part of Generation X, but also playing with the timelessness of the rebellion of being a teenager,” said Smith.
Having choreographed the work 14 years ago, Smith relied on that timelessness as she developed the piece over the last few months, something she viewed as an exciting challenge.
“I created it so long ago, I wanted to find out what was still relevant today,” Smith said. “I’ve always been inspired by the female identity and as I’ve matured, I think that female identity has matured.”
The identity of the piece has matured in the dancers as well, who, after performing the piece multiple times both at Knox and the Minnesota Fringe Festival, have started to make the work their own.
“There aren’t many dances that are made about this subject matter,” said Cochran. “It’s uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the more you own it.”
Poland shared similar sentiments.
“You get more comfortable with the actual theatricals of the piece and not just the movements,” she said.
Mogilevsky enjoyed multiple performances as a chance to expand the personality she put in the dance.
“Every time I act more drunk and more theatrical,” she said.
However, the group also found a challenge in performing the piece so often.
“There’s a huge difference between performing a piece multiple times in a performance setting and performing a Terp[sichore] piece in a recital setting,” said Poland. “We have to always know it.”
Since none of the piece’s original dancers were available, the company relied on a video of the début performance to learn their parts. Although glad to have the video accessible, Smith acknowledged the challenge that came with learning an entire work from a video recording and said there was a question as to whether or not the current dancers should “embody [the original dancer’s] movement, or do I make it my own and change it?”
“I’m almost positive we made some changes,” said Bires. “It’s like the movements are faster and there’s longer pauses between the movement [in the original].”
Smith viewed relying on the video as merely another part of the process of performance.
“There are many ways people can produce their choreographic works,” she said.
Smith particularly enjoyed the Minnesota Fringe Festival as a way to produce. In some ways it was easier, as the company did not have to rent a venue or deal with a box office. At the same time, however, they were dealing with someone else’s rules and dancing on a stage they had never seen before.
“We created this piece not knowing the space, having never seen the space,” said Smith. “You’re walking into something where you just have to walk in, step up to the plate. You have to make it work or not and that’s not really an option.”
Although it required adaptability, the dancers were also enthused about performing at the festival.
“I felt it was a humbling experience,” said Cochran. “I definitely take myself and my company seriously but it was eye-opening to be with other professionals who have been dancing so much longer than I have.”
Even though they have worked with the piece for several months, the dancers are still able to find the fun and silly along with the serious.
“Prom is one of the few dance rituals we have left,” said Smith. “This piece pokes fun at it while acknowledging it.”