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A Long Labor

VCU dance unleashes seven senior choreographers and their four years of pent-up composition.

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Two musicians sit on opposite sides of a room exchanging phrases on flamenco guitar and conga. A dancer charges from one end of the studio to the other, followed by another, then two at once. Choreographer Kevin Jones watches his dancers give life to the twirls and leaps he's been developing during his four years in Virginia Commonwealth University's dance program.

The premiere of the concert showcasing senior dance projects is days away. Rehearsals are numbered and time is precious, with added care being given to every step of the process. Few understand this more than dancer Samantha Mikkelson. She is five months pregnant.

Mikkelson graduated from the university's dance program last year. Like some of the other alumni in the show, returning to participate is a testament to the choreographers' dedication to their craft, and the dancers' dedication to the choreographers.

“Kevin asked me a long time ago to be in his piece and I said ‘Yes,’” she says. “I wouldn't want to continue if it affected what his vision was.”

The visions of these senior choreographers' span their college career. This weekend's performances include seven senior choreographers, 37 dancers and four years of planning, rehearsing and marketing — the program's finest presenting their final works before they prance off into the real world.

In previous years, the meticulously planned projects bore such arcane titles as “Shifting Twilight” and “A Building Alive.” This year's show promises to push the envelope of ingenuity, featuring Latin, Filipino and Greek mythological influence, aleatoric music (music partially or entirely left to chance, like free-form jazz), and geometric choreography.

The title, however, is a study in simplicity: “The Dance Show.”

“You're trying to find a common theme,” says Lea Marshall, the event's producer (and Style Weekly dance critic). “Quite often there isn't one. These guys have embraced that fact wholeheartedly and took the one thing that is in common, which is dance, and just rolled with it.”

Although marketing directors and choreographers Burr Johnson and Ashley Narvaez have undertaken many of the marketing tasks for the show, Johnson says all the seniors pull their weight.
“Every dance major has had marketing experience with their own shows,” he says. “This time there was a little more responsibility on our back considering this is our work.”

Duties ranged from scheduling rehearsals and submitting proposals to setting up a photo shoot, selling advertising and sending thank-you letters for donations. On the academic side, the students are learning about lighting design, costuming, musical synchronization and casting. The resulting works are quite distinct.

Charli Brissey's “In Strangers and Soundtracks,” like the six other pieces, investigates ideas through human movement. Her piece, however, uses 12 dancers to do so.

“I wanted to build my own little atmosphere and it became much easier and more fun the more people I had to help me build it,” Brissey says.

Johnson's “A Vanishing Point” experiments with methodical ideas of dancers as smaller parts of a larger geometric plan. In Erin Dalton's work, a single entity becomes four tightly woven figures weaving a tapestry on the stage floor. When asked how Dalton pronounces her piece, “::::”, Dalton's response is simple.

“You can't,” she says.

Jones opted for two live Latin musicians to accompany the dancers in “All of the Above.” A dancer for the Latin Ballet of Virginia, Jones wanted to make sure his cast was comfortable with the idea of live music versus, say, a CD.

“We tried [live music] and everyone liked it and so we kept it,” he says, adding that the relationship between musician and dancer is “like a give and take.” Unlike senior painting or sculpture shows, though, these large dance collaborations rely on cooperation and a few different kinds of flexibility.  “Sometimes things may change, but people adapt to it in the process.”

Adapting is the name of the game for Mikkelson, who carries the “fifth little star of the piece.” Although a recent graduate of the dance program, her commitment involves the greatest risk, though she says her baby provides more incentive to keep dancing.

So when does one draw the line between diligence and leisure? “I don't recover quickly now, but [the piece] is about kids, so if I fall, I can just be a clumsy kid.” S

“The Dance Show: Fall 2008 Senior Project Concert,” runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. Tickets are $5-$10. 828-2020.

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