Master Choreographers to bring exciting dances to Muhlenberg

Abigail Linnemeyer '20, Jalil Robinson '22 and Olivia Garcia '20 dance in "For Betty."

The Muhlenberg College community will have a fantastic opportunity the weekend of Feb. 6, as the annual Master Choreographers dance concert is performed in the Empie Theatre. Featuring dance works by two guest artists, Bill Evans and Yoshito Sakuraba, as well as several Muhlenberg faculty choreographers, including Heidi Cruz-Austin, Karen Dearborn, Megan Flynn, Shelley Oliver and Randall Anthony Smith. Audiences will witness pieces from four different genres of dance: ballet, contemporary dance, tap and jazz.  Prior to the performances of Master Choreographers, The Muhlenberg Weekly had the chance to get a sneak peek at two of the dances that will be part of the dance concert.

The first of these dances is Nightwalkers, choreographed by guest artist Yoshito Sakuraba.  Premiering in 2019, Nightwalkers was originally performed by the Peridance Contemporary Dance Company.  Nightwalkers features an ensemble of ten dancers, and it is certainly a piece where each member of the ensemble is crucial to the success of the dance.  There are moments throughout the dance in which each dancer has his or her own choreography, but they all must line up in moments where the dancers come together as a group.  All the dancers seemed to have strong ownership of their responsibilities, which is particularly notable since they began rehearsing this past fall.

One of the dancers, Heather Downey ’20, described the process. 

“We had an intensive weekend over fall break, dancing anywhere from four to six hours each day,” said Downey. “We learned the movement from Sakuraba’s assistant Carley and then Sakuraba pieced it together, so we were never learning chronologically.  The piece was fully complete after that weekend, so we would meet once a week to run the piece.”

Rehearsal director for Sakuraba’s dance and Muhlenberg faculty member Randall Anthony Smith explained that Sakuraba usually does not title his work until after the piece has been completed.  In the case of Nightwalkers, the final image of the piece gave him the inspiration for this title.  Nightwalkers is full of intricate gestures, and as Smith put it, Sakuraba created a “language for this community of dancers.”  The foreboding music, push and pull elements in the choreography and mix of fast and slow movements help emphasize the darker themes, weight and emotions that all work together to, somewhat coincidentally, fit the title of the dance. 

An interesting point about Sakuraba’s dance is that it doesn’t have a particular story that he was trying to tell with his choreography.

 “This piece was out of the ordinary in that Yoshito never told us what this piece was about, so it was left up to us to interpret the movement. Randall also followed suit, letting us create our own personal meanings for the work, which I think is what makes it so unique,” Downey explained. 

It is up to the dancers and the audience to create their own interpretation of the work.  As Downey hopes, “I want the audience, much like the dancers, to create their own ideas of what the work is about. I want them to be intrigued and thinking about it long after the concert has ended, which I anticipate given how much thought I know I have put into the meaning of this work.”

Another featured dance, choreographed by Randall Anthony Smith, is titled Agape’s Touch Beyond Earthly Attachment.  The piece has an ensemble of seventeen dancers, and it is a contemporary dance full of energy and vibrancy.  It serves as the third dance in a trilogy: the first work was about the brain/cerebral elements, the second was about the body and this dance is about the emotionality between people from all different backgrounds coming together through their spirituality.  This dance was conceived a year ago, and Smith worked closely with sound designer/composer Ian Scot and costume designer Lex Gurst to create the concept of the dance. Smith once called it the “most collaborative work he’s done,” as he worked closely with the designers and dancers to make the piece what it is today.  Agape’s Touch Beyond Earthly Love is all about “the ebb and flow of all the work of the last four years” that Smith has done, and he references it as “not a collection, but a revival.”

Featuring a captivating duet by Jalil Robinson ’22 and Morgan Litzenberger ’20, the large ensemble of Agape’s Touch Beyond Earthly Attachment works together extremely well in keeping the piece exciting and high-energy.  They manipulate various costume pieces to “reveal and conceal,” as Smith put it, and they maintain the difficult precision of the choreography with mastery.  The choreography also features some percussive elements to it like hand-clapping, stomps and hitting the ground, which the dancers must time together to make the moments successful.If these two pieces are any indication, Master Choreographers is sure to be a stellar collection of dances.  The audience will have a lot to look forward to and to take away from the dances as well.  Downey explained, “I want the audience to feel as if they have experienced a wide variety of dance styles and to be craving more knowledge about movement. There are two ballet pieces, a tap piece (that I’m also in) and three other modern dance works that showcase the range of the choreographers and dancers at the college.”  Audiences will certainly have all of this to anticipate when Master Choreographers hits the Empie stage next weekend.

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