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Nicholas Leichter makes an art out of violating the unspoken guidelines of dance.

Breaking the Rules

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When dancer Nicholas Leichter performed his solo "Animal" two years ago, he had no idea that it would change his life. A tense war between conscious control and unfamiliar chaos, this humorous and haunting dance combines restricted movements with unleashed gestures. Leichter puts in this way: "I wanted to find out who was real and who was the animal. It was the first time that I made myself so vulnerable to an audience. I let myself feel naked. It brought up questions like, 'Do I have the right to be here?'"

At the time, Leichter was guest artist at Virginia Commonwealth University, which also, in part, commissioned the work. This week's concerts at the University of Richmond's Alice Jepson Theatre open with "Animal," Leichter's way of saying thanks to Richmond at the end of another six-week stint in-residence at VCU.

Since premiering "Animal," Leichter finds he can't return to his previous way of dancing. He refers to the many "undisclosed laws" of dance, so-called unspoken guidelines that say, for instance, never to give the audience your back, not to look directly at the audience, or to be still for too long. Mostly though, he's including more story and drama in his work, he says, despite the rule that says, "You're not supposed to put it all out there. Keep them guessing what it's about."

Happily, he's breaking more and more of these rules. "My vocabulary has changed and grown," Leichter says. "I'm not afraid to use theater, one of my loves. ... There's a great discipline achieved through dance training, but I also realize there's a certain energy that is inevitably theatrical."

Although Leichter says he is "about as influenced by modern dance as I can take," he also has a growing respect for street and urban dance. "I'm using dance as a metaphor for what I want to say," he says. "I'm returning to the feeling that got me into dance in the first place, that dance is hot."

Leichter will be joined by his company, which is based in New York, and several VCU students. In addition to "Animal," they'll perform four works, including the world premiere of "Worth." Here again, Leichter will investigate the boundaries of authentic behavior by focusing this time on Las Vegas show girls. "The mask or costume says all you need to say originally," he says. "... If beauty and celebrity exist on the outside only, then you may be ugly inside."

Other pieces include the tragicomedy "No Closer," which relies on many Chaplinesque movements and portrays a dysfunctional family. The duet "Good Cop, Bad Cop" pairs two dramatically different characters together.

Leichter is most excited about "Baby Doll," his newest solo, which extends "Animal's" vulnerability even further. "'Baby Doll' comes to that place that if you don't say what you really think, you explode," he explains. "... It's a new book, or new chapter, for me. I've found that it's empowering to walk away from and start something new. After this, I can't even imagine what's next." Perhaps he'll know once those pages are

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