For seven Knox dancers, winter and spring term are offering an experience unlike any other.
These students are enrolled in the Dance Ensemble course, a capstone experience designed “to give us the feel of what life is like in a professional company,” junior Kyla Tully said. Aiming to give dance minors professional performing experience, the class will spend the next two terms learning eight to nine full-length pieces, culminating in a spring mainstage show in Harbach Theatre.
“[Dancers] will work with multiple choreographers throughout the duration of the course and really start to grasp the idea of what different performance qualities are,” Associate Professor of Dance, and the teacher of the course, Jennifer Smith said. Both Smith and Assistant Professor of Dance Kathleen Ridlon are choreographing pieces for the ensemble, which provided a new opportunity for senior Emily Berkson.
“I’ve never worked [with] a faculty member for my choreographer,” Berkson said. “It’s kind of exciting, to see what your professors are doing and thinking about.”
For Smith, that translated into creating a dance about modern heroines. Over break, dancers researched the mythology behind heroines and came up with their own definitions of heroines.
“It very much is a collaborative experience,” Smith said. “That’s a big part of dance ensemble, investing in the whole process. It’s not just about learning the steps and then putting it onstage.”
Although Smith choreographs with certain movements in mind, she also incorporates the ideas and personal styles of her dancers into the work. This was a new experience for Tully.
“I’m more of a person who’s like, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” Tully said. A self-designed dance major, Tully came to the group with a strong background in ethnic and folk dance.
“Everyone else in the group is very heavily modern or tap and jazz-based, so we’re a really interesting mix,” Tully said.
The diversity of the group was something Smith valued.
“They are coming in with their own skills and experience,” she said. “As an ensemble I couldn’t wish for anything better.”
Berkson agreed with Smith, noting that each dancer’s style contributed to the artistry of the ensemble.
“The different dance styles are what makes it challenging but also really exciting and will make it really dynamic to watch,” she said.
The ensemble has a busy few months ahead of them. In March, the group will be traveling to Kalamazoo, Mich. to participate in the Regional Alternative Dance festival. Out of 19 groups performing, only three are student companies. The group will perform their works again during their spring show, giving them an opportunity to thoroughly develop their choreography over several weeks.
“One of the goals that I have is … to really look at performance as process,” Smith said. “They’re performing this piece in the festival, [and] they’re performing it in the spring again… What does it mean to perform in these different venues?”
Tully saw multiple performances as a chance to heighten the technical level of each piece.
“It’s similar to Terpsichore in the way that you’re trying to crank things out quickly, but we have a little more time to say, no, try and make your face look like this and not this,” she said.
The ensemble has one piece that will have to be learned in just a week. In the spring, Aerial Dance Chicago will be coming to Knox to host workshops and teach a piece to the members of Dance Ensemble. Co-directed by a Knox alumna, their work “is all aerial … all sorts of crazy stuff,” Smith said.
The final spring show will also incorporate costume and lighting design, also designed to mimic the experience of being in a professional company.
“I think people will see there is something a bit different in this type of experience,” Smith said. “I think that the caliber of the work that is being created is really extraordinary.”