Displaying graceful fluid movement and kinetic muscular leaps, the 30 student performers taking part in the Fredonia Dance Ensemble spring concert this weekend demonstrated their mastery of a wide range of dance styles, from African dance to flamenco-inspired ballet. Enhanced by innovative costuming and creative stage lighting, the company created sumptuous layers of emotional texture on the Marvel Theater stage.
For the past four years, the Fredonia Dance Ensemble (FDE), in residence at SUNY Fredonia under the direction of Helen Myers, associate professor of dance, has uniquely contributed to the rich diversity of arts programming in Chautauqua County. This year's concert culminates months of training by students, who danced in seven distinctive pieces choreographed by several guest artists in addition to Fredonia dance faculty. Their hard work, and the work of the dance faculty, were in abundant display: timing, expression and skillful technique were clearly evident on opening night. This was a superb program that left the audience marveling at the professionalism this student company has achieved in four short years.
Two of the guest artists, Jill Pribyl and Grace Flavia Ibanda, both currently teaching and working in Uganda, were in residence at Fredonia during the fall semester, thanks to Myers's efforts, where they taught a variety of master dance classes and re-staged two sections of a fusion piece, an African dance-based Nutcracker. This unique dance, "Ground Nut," culminated the show, setting up an explosive ironic juxtaposition between the rhythmic African movements and tribal costumes, created by Fredonia faculty member Dixon Reynolds, and Tchaikovsky's well-known ballet score. Pribyl, a former Fulbright scholar at Uganda's Makerere University, teaches dance in the Department of Performing Arts and Film. According to Myers, she has worked in the genre of dance theater for over 15 years, performing throughout the United States, Canada, Africa and the U.K. Ibanda, pursuing an MA in dance at Makerere, teaches at In-Movement/Art for Social Change, an organization that works with disadvantaged youth through the arts in Uganda, Myers said. She has taught dance throughout Uganda and in the United States, and worked with choreographers from the U.K., Wales, Ethiopia, the United States, and Russia.
Such global dance residencies are a hallmark of Myers's tenure as director of FDE. Previous guest choreographers have introduced Fredonia students and audiences to dance forms from Guatemala and Mexico; such exposure to global diversity is important to Myers' vision of the program. "Guest artists not only round out the dance offerings we can present but also give the students important cultural perspectives about dance and the global community," she said. "In a rural area like Fredonia, it would be easy to become limited in our vision; we wish to avoid that in the dance program."
The third guest artist for this year's concert, Tressa Gorman Crehan, in contrast, is a member of the dance faculty at the University at Buffalo. In her 25+ year tenure there, Myers said, Crehan has served as associate director of dance and head of the dance education and creative studies program. The recipient of many awards and grants, Crehan's choreographic credits range from concert dance to theatrical productions and computer-generated choreography. She, too, has worked on a number of continents, including South America. Her work "and when I turned around (I was gone)" ended the first act in a stunning, lyrical piece for nine dancers. Lighting designer Jen Carlson achieved dramatic effect by creating moving pools of light across the stage; dancers moved from light to shadow in a dreamy dance set to Nocturnes #1 and #14 by Frederick Chopin. Reynolds' airy costumes enhanced the fluidity of the dancers' movements.
The performance opened with a flamenco-inspired ballet, choreographed by Fredonia faculty member Angelika Summerton, taking its title from the well-known "Bolero" by Maurice Ravel. Friday evening's soloist, Amanda Sahr, led her 10 fellow dancers in a rich, intoxicating spiral of sensuality. Amanda Kellner alternates as soloist this weekend.
Act 1 also included a provocative piece, "First Dance," choreographed by Fredonia faculty member Sam Kenney, focusing on the complex rite of marriage. Against a creative mash-up of music devoted to love, conceptualized traditionally and ironically, the three dancers invited the audience to contemplate the complex weave of tradition, fidelity, fear and fantasy surrounding this institution.
The second act opened powerfully with another piece choreographed by Kenney, titled "Embodying" which the program noted was selected for inclusion in the Northeast Regional American College Dance Festival held at Penn State University. The eight dancers moved in intriguing, rhythmic pulses, matching the electronic music of Delerium, providing a compelling visual and aural experience and highlighting contemporary dance choreography. Lighting by Marcus Berdeguez and costumes by Reynolds gave the performance atmospheric color and emotion that truly complemented the dancers' movements.
The two middle pieces of Act 2 couldn't have been more different in terms of style and content: "RED," choreographed by Fredonia faculty member Paul Mockovak, utilized a trio of dancers (Kellner and Sahr again alternating the female role) in an emotionally complex dance exemplifying a more traditionally modernist style. Reynolds' stripped-down pale costumes allowed the flowing red fabric prop used by the dancers to metaphorically connect the movements to the mood set by Samuel Barber's "Piano Concerto #38."
In stark contrast to that modern style of dance, the all male dancers performing "Joe, Bob & Sheldon," choreographed by Helen Myers, fully utilized the spoken word/music by Lyle Lovett ("Here I Am"), in a comic piece about love and desire. Myers's choreography frequently spotlights the way movement permeates everyday reality, making dance more accessible to contemporary audiences while at the same time, offering dancers a rich palette for expressiveness and versatility.
Fredonia Dance Ensemble reaches a critical milestone with this year's concert performance, as its first cohort of student dancers taking a BFA degree in dance will graduate this May. They include Joseph Corallo, Katherine O'Keefe, Amanda Sahr, and Jennifer Sharlette. An enthusiastic audience member will also leave campus this May: Fredonia President Dennis Hefner. Marking his last appearance as an audience member before his retirement, the company invited Hefner onstage Friday night to present him with tokens of their appreciation for his long-standing support: an FDE water bottle and hoodie sweatshirt.
Jeanette McVicker is professor of English at SUNY Fredonia.