VRDT illuminates stage with diverse performance

Dancers in "on earth as it is in heaven" by Turner Hitt '18. Photo Credit: Mitch Davis '19

Dance is expression, passion and resistance. Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre (VRDT) made that loud and clear at their Feb. 9 ModFest performance. The show, featuring faculty-and-student-created works and new pieces by Adjunct Dance faculty member Leslie Sachs and returning alumna Alaina Wilson, presented a variety of different styles of dance, from classical ballet to Argentine tango. The performance gave the viewer a peek at the breadth of Vassar’s dance department while simultaneously expressing this year’s Modfest theme of “adapting” through different types of movement.

The show, which ran for a little over an hour, was composed of eight very diverse pieces. The performance began with a classical ballet piece choreographed by Assistant Professor of Dance Miriam Mahdaviani. The dance was the first work to include pointe in a VRDT ModFest show. Mahdaviani commented, “What I really want people to take away from the piece is that even though it’s a classical ballet piece, I think it still resonates with people today. It’s not like an old-fashioned relic that belongs in a museum somewhere.” Mahdaviani, a dancer and teacher trained at the New York City Ballet, emphasized that the beauty of ballet is timeless—it is a type of dance that audiences will always want to see and that dancers can always appreciate. “In fact, many of my ballet dancers here at Vassar love the classicism, precision and the overall line that ballet dancers make with their bodies,” she added.

Other pieces captured the beauty of dance and the theme of “adapting” in different ways. Sachs, who received her formal training from the New York City Ballet, commented on how the theme developed in her piece, “The Inbetween.” Originally, she felt the theme meant “giving over” or “acquiescence.” However, as Sachs developed the work, she had a realization. She explained, “The idea of adaptation or adapting is so much more than the end result. ‘Adapting’ necessarily presupposes resistance, energy, shift, allowance and ultimately change which results in acceptance.” She added, “I titled my piece ‘The Inbetween’ as it is a reflection of the process, that in-between space, that holds the activity of shifting from one place into another.”

There were even pieces choreographed by students. Sophomore Henry Gilbert’s dance was dramatic and dark. The dancer saw direct links between his piece and the theme, commenting, “My piece ‘Wires’ was inspired by technology and how it succeeds human evolution. I think adaptation is a central theme in my piece as it concerns the balance between human and computer minds and how we must adapt to the digital age, as well as how we must adapt technology to suit our needs while simultaneously remaining in control of our own worlds. In other words, adaptation is necessary to maintain balance.”

Senior Megan Jackson also saw a relevance of the theme to her work, “At Dusk,” a fragile and ethereal dance. “I think it connects to the ModFest theme of adapting because it takes place as the sun is going down and the landscape is morphing and changing.”

The show also featured a longer piece called “Marksman” that was created by guest choreographer Kate Weare. The work, which received much acclaim among the audience, could be described as primal with a very human grace to it. The dancers wore earth-toned costumes and played off of each other’s movements.  

With this assorted mix of different types of dance presented, the dancers and choreographers were pushed outside of their comfort zones. Margaux Lieser ’18 challenged herself to create a piece inspired by Argentine tango. “I’ve always been inspired by ballroom and Latin dance, but I’ve had no formal training in it. I’ve tried to pick it up and incorporate it into my dance vocabulary,” she said. “I wanted to do something different and I’m really proud of the result.”

Moreover, the theme of “adapting” speaks to the nature of dance as a whole. Lieser commented, “As a dancer, you are always learning ways to adapt to new situations. If things go wrong, you are taught that the professional way to handle it is to pick yourself up and keep going.”

For the most part, the dancers have been working on the pieces for the entire year. Each piece had been choreographed and developed in the fall, except for the two new pieces by Sachs and Wilson that were created for the event. The team is working towards presenting all of the works featured in the ModFest performance at their annual showcase at the Bardavon Opera House in March.

“I pulled the piece together in three rehearsals—though much of the footprint was done in a couple of weeks in my head. The dancers were quick in picking up the material, and they had no choice, as we had five or six rehearsals total,” Sachs said of her piece that was added for the event.

Regardless of rehearsal time, the creative process for developing the pieces remains consistent. Much of the choreography is created through interwoven factors such as inspiration from the music, group collaboration, and raw imagination on behalf of the choreographer. “My material is developed by movement play, vision and allowance. I work off of the dancers with set material but happily adopt nuance and error when they arise and work,” commented Sachs.

“I like to operate by the rule that if I can’t do it myself, I shouldn’t expect other people to do it. I want to be able to demonstrate it for someone,” said Lieser, speaking to her choreographing process. “With the partner dancing, I came with ideas of lifts or steps I wanted to try and then from there it was a collaborative process.” Lieser also felt heavily influenced by the song, which she always picks before coming up with choreography. “For me the music is everything. I feed off of it for my movement,” she explained.

Mahdaviani agreed with the importance of music in a piece, commenting, “What is really most important is the music…the choreography [is] another layer of complexity to the overall picture. The dancing is another layer to a palette—it adds texture and context to the music. If you have a piece [of music] that is minimalist or a nice waltz, you can add dance to that to fill out the artistic picture.”

Speaking to the importance of dance in general, Lieser commented, “There is no other way to express yourself better nonverbally than dancing. You can really express any feelings, emotion or message through movement and sometimes in more abstract ways than through any other medium, especially if the choreography is not so overt and literal. You can interpret it any way you feel. Dance does a wonderful job of exploring different messages, but also leaving room for audience interpretation.”

The Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre will be preparing for their Bardavon performance on March 3 and 4. The tickets are $9 and will be sold in the College Center or can be purchased through the Dance Department a few weeks before the performance. A VRDT show is not something to miss. “There’s this live performing arts energy that just fills the theater,” Mahdaviani commented on watching dance. “There is such a great level of commitment and the dancers just give it their all. The audience definitely feels that energy.”

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