The Muhlenberg College Dance Program will present seven world-premiere dance pieces in its annual faculty and guest artist-choreographed concert, “In Motion,” March 30 – April 1. Jazz choreographer and scholar Melanie George headlines the concert. All seven choreographers are non-male identifying — a Muhlenberg first for the faculty-choreographed concert. Co-artistic directors Robyn Watson and Heidi Cruz-Austin see this as just one of the qualities that set “In Motion” ’23 apart.
“I think every year is different because even returning choreographers are not coming in with the same ideas,” Watson says. “They’re coming in with new approaches and new thoughts and the students get to experience those thoughts.”
The artistic directors say they were driven by two goals in particular in their search for a guest choreographer for this year’s concert: find someone who brought something new to the table, and find someone as committed as they are to anti-racist practices in their artistry. Melanie George fit the bill. “We felt that Melanie was a good artist to present that,” Watson says, “both as a practitioner and as a choreographer.”
The founder and director of the Jazz Is… Dance Project and director of artist initiatives at Jacob’s Pillow, George brought a unique approach to jazz practices for the Muhlenberg dancers in her piece. “For me, it was about giving them an experience with my particular approach to jazz dance,” she says, “which is a rooted Black American approach, because jazz is a rooted Black American art form.” George and the dancers produced what she calls a “jazz sampler,” featuring four stylistically distinct sections within the piece. “I hope their experience with me has challenged the dancers in some really positive ways,” she says.
The concert will also premiere work by renowned Muhlenberg faculty members, including program chair Karen Dearborn, whose ballet piece “Anchors in Loss” begins with the physicality of tying pointe shoes. “The work conjures memories of friendship, love and loss through fleeting encounters that provide anchors to our lives,” Dearborn says.
Natalie Gotter’s modern piece challenged the dancers to examine how we respond when safety is on the line. She says fight-or-flight reactions are integral to the movement quality of the piece. “My work is engaging with questions of safety and the presentation of the self,” she says, “what we show in a situation that feels threatening, vs. what we’re actually experiencing — heart thumping in your ears, deciding when and whom to trust.”
Robyn Watson’s tap piece addresses a theme that she calls “an odd choice” for the genre: grief. She explains, “It’s questioning how and if we treat grief and lament in a necessary, practical and hopeful way.”
The ocean provided the inspiration for Heidi Cruz-Austin’s ballet piece, the title of which is just the greek letter lambda, which in physics represents wavelength. “I started to think about the ways that life mirrors the ebb and flow of the ocean through the cycles of joy and challenges we face,” she says, “and the resiliency and self-healing abilities we have.”
Cruz-Austin worked with the dancers to push beyond the historically regimented aesthetics of ballet in her piece, which features live piano accompaniment by Holly Roadfeldt. “Already I see the dancers taking the piece to a level that I never imagined or envisioned it could be,” she says. “I’m always on the edge of my seat watching it, because I really don’t know what new thing I will see.”
Second-year faculty members Elizabeth Bergman and Anito Gavino both make their Muhlenberg choreographic debuts in this concert. Bergman says the process for her piece, “Undertow,” was “highly collaborative,” with her cast of 15 dancers working together to choreograph movement and weight-bearing lifts that require group coordination — set to original music composed by Clark Baechle.
Gavino has created a piece inspired by communal spaces of celebration, from her indigenous Filipino festival of Dinagyang to Rio’s Carnival, the ballroom and club scenes, and beyond. “In a way, I am creating my own experimental documentary with live components in the shape of dance,” Gavino says. A self-described social justice-maker, Gavino collaborated with the dancers in a research-driven process that centered “stories of resistance and vigilance of people from the African Diaspora.” They sought to answer the question, “How can dance be a form of social change and activism?”
Through their work as artistic directors, Cruz-Austin and Watson say they are committed to curating high-caliber experiences for the dancers beyond their performances onstage. “What keeps bringing the dancers back to wanting to be in In Motion is the fact that they’re getting to work with their professors that they normally take class with in a more creative capacity,” Cruz-Austin says.
Watson says the biggest takeaway for the concert’s dancers will come from the process, rather than the product. “They’ll understand that every choreographer’s process is different,” she says. “But honoring each process is worth it because that’s where all the magic happens.”
In Motion runs March 30 – April 1 in the Empie Theatre, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults, $8 for patrons 18 and under, and $8 for students, faculty, and staff of all LVAIC colleges. Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or muhlenberg.edu/seeashow