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Free St. Paul’s School ballet performance highlights modern choreographers

Last modified: 5/22/2015 12:39:52 AM
St. Paul’s School ballet students are offering two free opportunities to experience contemporary dance by influential choreographers and composers. The 17 dancers directed by Jennifer Howard will perform selections by Merce Cunningham, Philip Neal and Sydney Skybetter this weekend.

“This is a chance to see really good dance,” Howard said.

The MinEvent is a selection of sequences choreographed by Cunningham, who was an avant-garde leader of experimental work. For the MinEvent, material was pulled from his Dime a Dance (1953), Canfield (1969), Un jour ou deux (1973), Roaratorio (1983) and Fabrications (1987) specifically for the St. Paul’s dancers by Jamie Scott of the Merce Cunningham Trust.

Cunningham had an artistic career spanning 70 years and was an innovator of dance and performing arts. He was a soloist in the Martha Graham Dance Co. before founding his own dance company.

Cunningham’s work can sometimes be difficult to understand. You may not understand what is going on, but that’s okay, said Andrea Weber, a Cunningham Fellow who assisted the students in rehearsal.

“There is no one way to see this,” she said.

The work will be particularly unique because it will be accompanied by composer Christian Wolff, who will improvise the music as he plays, creating original pieces for each show.

His presence is a really big deal, Howard said. He sells out shows in New York City; being able to hear him play in person for free is extraordinary.

The French-born composer and teacher has had a professional relationship Cunningham and his company since 1952.

One of his teachers was John Cage, who was also Cunningham’s romantic and artistic partner.

Howard explained how the musical composition can stand alone as one component, the dance can stand alone as a separate component, and combined, they create a third different experience.

“It’s really about the experiences,” Weber said. Even sitting in a different spot in the Oates Performing Arts Center can provide a different experience.

Cunningham and Cage pioneered the idea that music and dance may occur at the same time and place but be independent.

The students practice without any music, and time becomes very important, said Weber.

“Rhythm is huge is Merce (Cunningham)’s work,” she said.

The MinEvent will be about half show.

During the winter show, work by Cunningham was performed alone. The spring show will also include Halcyon by Skybetter and It’s a Jungle Out There by Neal.

The word “halcyon” means to be calm, peaceful and prosperous.

The students’ dance “is about memory and time passing,” Howard said.

She explained the piece could be emotional for students to think about life phases, as some of them graduate or have friends who are graduating and moving on.

The choreography will be accompanied by a recording of the Kronos Quartet’s Cancao Verdes Anos and La Muerte Chiquita.

Skybetter “has a unique background,” Howard said. He is a dance performer, choreographer, technologist, and he studied dance history.

His dances have been performed at places such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Boston Center for the Arts, Jacob’s Pillow and the Joyce Theatre, among others.

It’s a Jungle Out There is a more literal piece, Howard said. There is not really a story to it, just what animals in the jungle feel.

The dancers will be accompanied by recordings of Xingu River and Amazon River performed by Uakti and composed by Philip Glass.

Neal is a graduate of St. Paul’s School was a member of the New York City Ballet for 23 years. He now works for the George Balanchine Trust and the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust and creates commissioned works for the Richmond Ballet and New York Choreographic Institute.

“These are people who are all very successful in their careers,” Howard said of the various choreographers and composers.

The students are enrolled in an academic dance class, a varsity level course which counts toward their athletic credits. Freshmen through seniors practice six days a week, year-round. There are about 50 students in the company, and 17 will dance in this show.

“These dancers are incredible,” Howard said. “They’re pretty amazing kids.”


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