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VCU's dance department celebrates 20 years with some successful grads, and at least one person you know.

Stepping Back

Teachers want to hear how well their students applied the knowledge imparted in class to the world beyond the classroom. "Peak Performance Plus: A Forward Look Back" will bring home two successful alumni from Virginia Commonwealth University's dance department: Richard Move and Paule Turner.

Move and Turner, along with visiting artists, faculty and students, will come together to celebrate the department's 20-year history. Don't expect any lofty speeches acknowledging department milestones and accomplishments, though. Instead, VCU has called upon the spirit of the grand dame of modern dance herself, Martha Graham, who has "agreed" to emcee the show, perform some of her work and interview department founder Frances Wessells.

OK, you're thinking, but didn't Graham die in 1991? Not according to Move. "Martha isn't dead," he explains pointedly. "She's alive and well and delivering monologues, playing emcee, and presenting short versions of her epic dances." Unstopped by such differences as gender and height, Move has assumed the character of Graham in an ongoing series of theatrical performances called Martha@. Having studied her writings and dances, he captures her essence so well that choreographer Mark Morris has remarked,"[Move] is more Martha Graham than Martha Graham was."

Assuming her character began from a late night cabaret show in 1995 where he performed alongside "Najinsky" and "Ruth St. Denis" — both, it should be noted, also quite dead. Move's camp depiction of Graham was so successful, he expanded the show into a vaudevillian variety show which attracted such renowned guests as Merce Cunningham, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Yvonne Rainer and Julia Roberts. In addition to his Martha@ show touring the states and abroad, he is also working with Baryshnikov and has directed LES MIZrahi, a one-man, off-Broadway show.

So how does Move get from VCU to a successful dance career? One nod goes to the dance department that "nurtured my personal creativity and experimentation," he says. A second nod goes to the "sheer will" that helped him adjust to the loss of school's structure and ready-made audience and "learn to self-initiative everything." He explains: "I had no choice. I had to make it work, period." A third nod goes to the more than two dozen companies he performed with over the years which expanded his thinking. "You kind of absorb what you think are the best traits of each individual," he says. "It helps inform the way you do things. You don't feel at all limited to one point of view or one way of doing things."

After graduating from VCU, Turner pursued an M.F.A. from Temple University, continually creating outrageously theatrical works that challenge gender roles. Recent pieces have appeared at Philadelphia's and Edinburgh's Fringe Festivals, which have garnered him praise in Dance Magazine as one of "25 to Watch." (Move was also mentioned.) For this concert, Turner and his ensemble Court present an excerpt from Euripides' "Medea," which mixes text, song, live music and dance.

As if Turner and Move weren't entertainment enough, add Paradigm to the lineup. Gus Solomons Jr., Carmen DeLavallade and Dudley Williams, each with long distinguished careers, will perform the collaborative work "Graylands." David Dorfman will present a dance/theater piece, "Horse I Want," which he created while in residency at the department last year. Chris Burnside offers the flowing trio, "Adante." Dance majors Alexandra Holmes and Timothy Zellars offer their joint efforts in "Play."

With Martha@ as emcee, expect to learn not only about the dance department, but also about the woman for whom, had she never danced, there might never have been a dance department. Think lineage. Think humor and inspiration. Think creative embodiment.

"Peak Performance Plus: A Forward Look Back" will take place at the Carpenter Center on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$15. Call 828-2020 or 262-8100.

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