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University Dancers present fall concert at Bowker Auditorium

  • Taylor Thistle, a junior at UMass, is lifted over her fellow dance team members during rehearsal on campus.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • UMass senior Sonja Brigham practices her solo routine during dance rehearsal  on campus.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS
  • UMass Dancers rehearse on campus.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

University of Massachusetts Amherst dancers are accustomed to learning difficult choreography, but for those chosen to perform in Anna Sokolow’s “Rooms” at this year’s University Dancers Fall Concert, the challenge went much deeper.

Dramatic, haunting and emotionally powerful, “Rooms” focuses on the multitude of emotions that loneliness can evoke, according to Paul Dennis, an assistant dance professor at UMass and the concert’s artistic director.

Sokolow, who died in 2000, studied with Martha Graham and grew to become an influential pioneer of modern dance in her own right, Dennis said. When “Rooms” was first performed in 1955, it was considered a milestone in the history of modern dance.

The emotionally demanding piece calls on dancers to do more than move onstage, Dennis says. They must find the honesty and reality of what their movements are meant to convey.

“Our students are fantastic dancers,” he said. “Even though every year we have a concert, we demand more and more of them each time.”

In addition to “Rooms,” the concert that will take place Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. in Bowker Auditorium on the UMass campus, will feature four pieces by UMass faculty: “Please/Thank You” by Billbob Brown, the head of the department; “You’ll Know It When You Get There,” by Adrienne Hawkins; “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” by Tom Vacanti; and a traditional West African piece by Marilyn Sylla.

The annual concert will primarily feature UMass students, but also includes dancers from all the Five Colleges. Through shared money, classes and concerts, Brown says, the Five Colleges can “make magic happen” and provide students with five times the experiences, teachers and performances.

Room with a view

“Rooms” has been set on the local dancers by Jim May, a disciple of Sokolow for 35 years and artistic director of the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble, a New York City based company whose goal is to recreate Sokolow’s works and to teach and develop her artistic vision.

“Rooms” is considered a masterpiece for its controversy and innovation, May said, and when it premiered, represented a new dawn in modern dance. “She opened up the floodgates for people to do their own thing.”

The piece grew out of Sokolow’s work with actors at the Juilliard School in New York.

“She would work with actors on different emotions and finally decided it needed to be a dance,” May said. The dance was also inspired by what Sokolow saw when she looked out her window in New York City at the people in their rooms in the apartment building across from her, he added.

The stage, set with a collection of chairs, each indicating a separate room for each dancer, is meant to represent loneliness in an urban setting, Dennis said. Sokolow also uses the dancers and the isolated chairs and movements to draw on a variety of other emotions, he added.

Because of the emotional heaviness of this piece, the dancers are being called upon to be completely real and in the moment, he said.

“The dancer who is doing panic, will not pretend to be panicked. He needs to be panicked,” he said. Because of the emotional demands, he added, “ ‘Rooms’ requires emotional, physical, psychological and a lot of artistic endurance.”

Dennis said he chose to include this piece in the concert because it will give his dancers an experience they haven’t had yet.

“They are being asked to not entertain in that piece. They are being called to present a piece of art.”

Learning in progress

Brown, the dance department director, has been choreographing for 35 years and says he is still learning from his students, fellow professors and himself. For this year’s concert, Brown decided to experiment with a new concept: “Please/Thank You,” is inspired by Marshall Rosenburg, creator of the Center for Non-Violent Communication in New Mexico, and suggests that all communication can be boiled down to simply “Please” or “Thank You.” Brown explored this idea with couple-based choreography which asks the dancers to push through physical limitations to achieve greater movements together.

“I’m always really interested in pushing my boundaries to try a piece that I’ve never done before,” Brown said.

His students say they are thrilled with the challenge.

Gabby Carmichael, a UMass junior majoring in dance, says she enjoys using movement to “represent nonviolent solutions to conflict.”

The choreography involves a pushing, pulling, leaning and dragging, which allows for difficult balances to happen that would have been impossible for the dancers to do on their own, Brown said.

“It’s really interesting because a lot of the movement depends on counterbalance and partnering,” said Anna Sidloski, a senior dance major.

The piece will be performed to live music played by cellist Kristen Miller.

“You’ll Know it When You Get There,” choreographed by Hawkins, provides a change of pace from the heavier Sokolow and Brown pieces. Set to songs by Art of Noise, the choreography of “Get There” is meant to offer a visual representation of what the audience is hearing musically, Hawkins said. Lively, upbeat and full of lifts, Hawkins cautiously categorizes “Get There” as a jazz piece. She’s not a fan, she says, of labeling her choreography.

“For me, movement is movement,” Hawkins said. Her focus is on challenging her dancers with complicated lifts, fast-paced movement, and a merging of dance styles including jazz, hip-hop, African, ballet, and modern.

“We are supposed to be portraying the visualization of those sounds … the movement is derived explicitly from the music itself,” said Sonja Brigham a senior dance and kinesiology major.

Brigham, who performs a solo in the piece, will also dance in Vacanti’s ballet, “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal,” based on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name. Vacanti collaborated with video artist Mark Piaget to create a multimedia presentation. The set is designed to make the audience wonder if what they’re seeing is a garden or an internal landscape.

The concert will close with an untitled traditional African dance by Sylla — one of three pieces in the concert that will be performed to live music.

“It’s a different concert with live music,” Dennis said. You get to feel the rhythms and textures coursing through you.”

Tickets for the University Dancers Fall Concert cost $12; $5 for seniors, students and children under 18. To reserve, call the Fine Arts Center box office at 545-2511, or visit www.umasstix.com/musicanddance.

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