Muhlenberg College Master Choreographers dance concert, Feb. 8-10

The Muhlenberg College dance program will showcase dance pieces by seven world-class choreographers in its annual “Master Choreographers” concert, Feb. 8-10. The performance includes a restaging of a dance by critically acclaimed guest artist Tiffany Mills, this season’s Baker Artist-in-Residence at Muhlenberg, supported by the Dexter F. & Dorothy H. Baker Foundation.

In addition to Mills’ piece, the evening will feature world premiere works by five Muhlenberg dance faculty: Heidi Cruz-Austin, alumna of the Pennsylvania Ballet; Corrie Franz Cowart, co-artistic director of Co-Art Dance; Shelley Oliver, director of Shelley Oliver Tap Dancers; Randall Anthony Smith, former dancer with Armitage Gone!; and Karen Dearborn, founder and chair of Muhlenberg’s dance program. Also featured: a restaging of “Side By Side,” choreographed by Jeffrey Peterson, former dancer with Danny Buraczeski’s Jazzdance.

Mills’ piece, “It Only Happen Once… Yesterday and Tomorrow,” was critically lauded in its 2013 premiere, performed and commissioned by 10 Hairy Legs dance company. In its Muhlenberg restaging, it maintains its original structure but includes movement contributions from the Muhlenberg dancers.

“The dancers rock and squirm and lock together to form designs like human puzzles,” wrote Robert Johnson of The Star Ledger. “Stealthy and filled with surprises, Mills’ work seems to tap the unconscious.”

Jeffrey Peterson’s piece “Side By Side” premiered at the 2013 edition of “Master Choreographers.” The piece was restaged this past summer on a commission from Rhymically Speaking, a presenting organization in Minneapolis, specializing in jazz vernacular dance. The cast of this restaging included Muhlenberg alumna Courtney Hunsberger and faculty member Randall Anthony Smith. Peterson’s work has been called “moving and heart-racingly joyous” by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

As well as performing in Peterson’s piece, Randall Anthony Smith will also be presenting his own world-premiere work, a modern piece titled “Between.”

“‘Between’ captures what I feel all human beings go through, which is being caught in the middle of two identities, feelings, and states of being,” Smith says. “We never know where we will end up in life, but by making one choice over another, we create impact, influencing the way we see ourselves and the world.

“My rehearsal process this year has been incredible,” he says. “I am creating in ways I have not before, and this experience is one that encourages me to share with my dancers my most vulnerable self. This has been a wonderful teaching tool that I hope my dancers are using in their own artistry and dancing beyond this intimate yet crazy piece of art.”

Corrie Franz Cowart will contribute a new modern-style work for 13 dancers, inspired by “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and set to the music of Peggy Lee, featuring 1950s cocktail party attire designed by costume designer Lex Gurst.

“There’s a line I love from Capote’s novel: ‘She’s a phony, but she’s a real phony,'” Cowart says. “The dancers move through and against social conventions and appropriate party behavior. They grapple with being ‘fake’ and being ‘real’ as they fly, swirl, leap and posture in vignettes reminiscent of early film choreographer Busby Berkeley.”

Heidi Cruz-Austin is staging a modern ballet piece titled “Widow’s Promenade II,” which she says is about “experiencing life beyond the mundane.”

The evening will also feature a world-premiere ballet by Karen Dearborn, the concert’s artistic director, as well as a new tap piece by Shelley Oliver, performed to live jazz music.

Connie R. Kunda, retired Associate Athletic Director and Wellness Director at Muhlenberg, will receive the LVAIC Dance Consortium Award following the Feb. 9 performance. Kunda founded the Wellness Institute at Muhlenberg in 1982, and developed a comprehensive student wellness program. The award is presented annually by the Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges Dance Consortium.

Performances of “Master Choreographers” will take place Thursday, Feb. 8, at 8 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 10, at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under. Performances are in the Empie Theatre, in the Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 or muhlenberg.edu/dance.