Seasoned dancers reflect on first positions in VRDT

The 146-year-old Bardavon Opera House has a rich history with famous artists from past decades. The renown theater will host Vassar dance students in VRDT in their 33rd Annual Bardavon Gala. Photo By: Poughkeepsie Journal
The 146-year-old Bardavon Opera House has a rich history with famous artists from past decades. The renown theater will host Vassar dance students in VRDT in their 33rd Annual Bardavon Gala. Photo By: Poughkeepsie Journal
The 146-year-old Bardavon Opera House has a rich history with famous artists from past decades. The renown theater will host Vassar dance students in VRDT in their 33rd Annual Bardavon Gala. Photo By: Poughkeepsie Journal

Just like every writer likes to imagine her name appear on the front cover of a book, every dancer probably has pictured a day when her performance is announced at the marquee of a renowned theater. This Saturday will be one of those days; Vassar Repertory Dance Theater (VRDT) will hold its Annual Gala performances at the Bardavon Opera House this Saturday, March 7, 2015. The performance will be open to the public and reservations can be made through the Vassar Box Office, Bardavon Box Office, and Ticketmaster.

Since its founding in 1869, the Bardavon Opera Theater has held performances from all artistic, musical and theatric eras in its almost 150 year history. The stage has held productions by major artists ranging from Mark Twain and Frank Sinatra, to Dizzy Gillespie and James Earl Jones. This March marks the 33rd Annual Bardavon Gala performances by Vassar students in the VRDT.

In 1980, VRDT was created so that the students of Vassar Dance Department, studying modern, jazz and ballet techniques had an opportunity to perform brand new repertoire. Student choreographers were also given opportunities to create works for their colleagues. Ray Cook was the first director of the company and was followed by Stephen Rooks, Paul D. Mosley, Maureen Mansfield Kaddar and John Meehan, the present Artistic Director.

Now, the VRDT recruits dancers through an audition that takes place every year on the first Saturday of the fall semester. All members of VRDT are required to attend the two-hour rehearsals on Mondays and Wednesdays. During these hours, dancers work on two of the faculty pieces and the company piece, a single dance performed by all the members of VRDT at the end of each stage performance.

Besides official rehearsals, members also need to work on the student pieces and smaller projects outside those hours. A VRDT dancer for three years, Nathaniel Wulff ‘15 commented on his experience in this group.

“I have basically lived in Kenyon since joining VRDT. On top of the mandatory two-hour rehearsals on Monday and Wednesday, I rehearse at least 5 hours a week for student and smaller pieces. VRDT members also have to attend at least one of the dance classes offered, and many students choose to take 2,” he wrote in an email statement.

VRDT dancers have been rehearsing “Chapters of a Broken Novel,” “Divertimento No. 15” and “Mosul” among other pieces directed by students in early March. Students from each class year and many different dance backgrounds will be performing on the Bardavon stage. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
VRDT dancers have been rehearsing “Chapters of a Broken Novel,” “Divertimento No. 15” and “Mosul” among other pieces directed by students in early March. Students from each class year and many different dance backgrounds will be performing on the Bardavon stage. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations

Despite many challenges, most members stll find it a rewarding experience to dance at VRDT. Wulff, who joined the group his sophomore year, found a new relationship between his mind and body through three years of dancing. “The group is filled with talented dancers, and the hours spent rehearsing encourages a tight knit community, so depending on the group, finding your own place and personality within VRDT both as a person and a dancer can sometimes be a challenge…The experience has pretty dramatically shaped my understanding of anatomy and kinesthetics as a personal science, and by that, I mean, that I learned about these scientific concepts as they applied to my own body and as they connected to my own thoughts and sensory experiences,” he said.

Another dancer at VRDT, Kerri-Anne Bell ‘17 enjoys the group’s professional way of working. “I joined VRDT in my freshman year, that is, Fall 2013. I decided to join VRDT because I am a member of The Company Dance Theatre in Jamaica and when I began college I knew I wanted to continue dancing and the fact that VRDT is run very similarly to a professional company I saw it as a perfect fit…It’s great to be able to work with a faculty that has had such a reputable background in dance and also with a diverse set of students that share their varying experiences with dance prior to VRDT.”

She also pointed out that her favorite part about VRDT is that students are given the opportunity to choreograph their own pieces, which allows them to explore their creative ability and have complete control over the production.

The annual performances tradition started three years after the group was founded. In 1983, the Annual VRDT Gala Performances were first held at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie. Director of VRDT and Chair of Dance Department John Meehan explained how the tradition began.

“The first Director of Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre, Ray Cook, could not find a suitable space for VRDT to perform on campus, so he arranged for the company to appear at the Bardavon Opera House 33 years ago. Since then the college has renovated the old indoor pool facility in Kenyon to create the beautiful Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater, however the tradition continues at the Bardavon. Originally there was just one performance, but now we hold 2 shows there. Last year we played to over 1200 people.” Meehan stated in an email statement.

Running for 90 minutes, the performances this year will include both existing pieces and faculty and student choreography, and the whole company will be performing.

“This year we will perform excerpts from two existing works; George Balanchine’s ballet masterpiece “Divertimento No. 15” and Doug Varone’s modern classic “Chapters from a Broken Novel.”  Steve Rooks, our resident choreographer has created the dramatic work Mosul and Kathy Wildberger, Assistant Director of VRDT has made the poetic Shimmer. Finally Abby Saxon, our jazz instructor has choreographed the upbeat and fun work, “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’.” Nine Student choreographers, Ally Hamilton ‘15, Katy Walter ‘15, Nate Wulff ’15, Alaina Wilson ‘16, Carmen Kloer ‘17, Oriana Catton ‘17, Kerri Anne Bell ‘17, Zerlina Panush ‘17, Ana Sheehan ‘17, have also made works.” Meehan explained.

Specifically, Meehan also noted that the ballet piece “Divertimento No. 15” would be worth expectation. “We have never had as many talented ballet dancers in VRDT before and consequently “Divertimento No. 15” will feature 16 dancers performing very challenging choreography,” he commented.

Moreover, “Chapters of a Broken Novel” is a work Meehan has always been hoping to bring to VRDT. “Doug Varone is a wonderful choreographer and I had him on my list to invite at some point…This year was the year that world out for this invitation,” he explained. He also described the piece as “compelling to watch.”

Some of the dancers shared their experiences performing these works. Bell stated, “As a dancer my favorite piece to perform is ‘Big Feelings’ by Carmen Kloer ‘17. It’s about identity, how we perceive ourselves, how others see us and how we really are. It’s an emotionally driven piece that has a cast of 11 dancers and to say the least, the piece is absolutely beautiful and is a tremendous pleasure to perform. Carmen is a beautiful soul and goes above and beyond to work with each dancer to ensure their comfort with the choreography and emotion behind the piece.”

Another dancer who will be performing in “Divertimento No. 15,” “Mosul,” and two student pieces, Katherine Taylor ‘15 found it challenging to play a modern work. “I’ve always been a bunhead, so being cast in a more modern based solo in Steve Rooks’ Mosul has pushed me artistically. Classical ballet teaches you to internalize feelings, and learning to express myself emotionally onstage has been challenging, but also very rewarding,” Taylor wrote in an email statement.

Dancing since she was three years old, Taylor think this may be her last chance to dance on stage and expressed her expectations for this gala performance. “Since I’m graduating in May, and not pursuing a career in dance, I think this may be one of my last performances. In light of that, and I think I can speak for all the seniors in VRDT when I say this, I hope I can remember to simply enjoy every second on that stage.”

Wulff added, “My goal with most performances is to dance my fullest, to immerse myself in the performance so that I lose my ego and merge myself and my body. To me, that allows me to have a greater sense of my movement and to dance generously, so that I can invite the audience into the performance. The talking in the mind kind of quiets down, the analysis starts happening in the nerves of your body rather than the voice of your head.”

Also, Bell emphasized the advantages of performing at the Bardavon. “It’s always nice to perform at different theatres. More members of the Poughkeepsie community tend to attend this performance so it’s also refreshing to perform for a different audience.”

Eventually, Meehan hopes the performance will not only be enjoyable to the audience, but also leave them with a sense of excitement and pride.

He concluded, “I am hoping that as usual a large cross section of the folks on the Vassar campus will attend the performances, enjoy the show and will leave with a feeling of excitement and pride that such talented dancers and choreographers are part of their community.”

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