For the members of the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre, or VRDT, dance is not a hobby; dance is a way of life. It is like breathing, but better. Telling stories with the human body, in all the rigor that entails, is their passion. Their most recent performance at the Bardavon Theatre on March 3 and 4 in downtown Poughkeepsie revealed their deep commitment to this art form.
Introducing the show, VRDT director and Professor of Dance on the Frances D. Fergusson Chair John Meehan applauded the massive dedication the dancers had put in to make the show a success. He reminded the audience that there is no major or correlate for dance at Vassar. Therefore, to put on a professional performance at a venue such as the Bardavon, when it’s only an extracurricular for all the performers, is quite a remarkable feat. Soon after, the velvet curtain slowly parted. The show had begun.
The first performance was a classical ballet; the dancers wore delicate, all-white tutus. The second performance was modern by comparison. The pace picked up at the start of the third performance with a piece entitled “Tear Down the Walls.” The music almost emanated out of the dancers’ bodies and into those of the audience. Their chaotic, pulsating movements were balanced by moments of peace and stillness. A narrative began to emerge as the four dancers mirrored each other’s movements, two wearing red, two wearing black. Although the meaning of this contemporary dance was ambiguous, it exuded elements of loss and heartache as invisible boundaries were broken with the human body.
Another notable performance, due to its modern style and greater volume of dancers, was “Zenith.” It was choreographed by VRDT Chair of Dance and Resident Choreographer Steve Rooks and danced to an original score by Vassar’s Adjunct Artist in Dance Howard Kilik. Rooks said, “This new work, ‘Zenith,’ is an homage to a more classic form of modern dance, and is in some ways informed by my experience as a dancer in the Martha Graham Dance Company…The dance is about coming to that moment of personal breakthrough.” The background featured a purple sky broken by the yellow sun, which added to this motif. Henry Gilbert ’20 was the male soloist, and his dancing revealed the torment of self-reflection. It was almost as if Gilbert’s body was a marble statue, resisting stillness to finally experience life. It was clear that the self-reflection and discovery envisioned by Rooks was perfectly executed by the ensemble.
Rooks also commented on the experience of working with Vassar students: “It is quite an honor to work with students who are self-motivated and passionate about dance. They are tenacious and accomplish an incredible amount of work in a relatively short amount of time.”
Senior Lecturer in Dance and Drama Katherine Wildberger also noted, “Choreographing a new work [for] these dancers is a gift. They bring to the rehearsal hall an honesty and work ethic that is completely professional.” In other words, as Wildberger described, “The dancers are gold.”
The student choreography provided another inspiring element to the show. Maya Talwar-Hebert ’20 spoke about what it takes to choreograph a piece for VRDT: “It can feel really vulnerable and scary to put your work out on stage for everyone to see. But the end result is so amazing; I felt so proud seeing something I’d worked so hard on and really pushed myself to create be performed by such an amazing cast.”
Talwar-Hebert went on to explain why VRDT’s student choreography is unique: “The dancers in the company all come from very different dance backgrounds, and being in a student piece is an amazing way to take a risk and try out a different dance style.” Echoing Talwar-Hebert’s sentiment, Rooks elucidated, “The student choreography continues to develop exponentially, and I would dare say has now become the highlight of most of our shows.”
Talwar-Hebert, who considers dance her passion, explained how being in VRDT has given her a sense of place and peace amidst her increasingly busy schedule: “No matter what else I have going on in a day, dance is a bit of an escape. It clears my mind [and] gives me a fresh perspective.”
The second-to-last piece, “La Milonga De Amor,” brought Latin Ballroom to the stage. Taking this traditional dance up a notch, the music pulsed with an electronic beat. The piece centered around a couple undertaking impressive lifts and spins. This pair’s dynamics were simply electric. Talwar-Hebert confirmed that Lieser’s work was definitely a show-stopper. “She took on a whole new style of dance that I’ve never seen before in a VRDT show and made an incredibly fierce piece. Her choreography was strong but fun and fast-paced.”
The show came to a close with the finale. In this epic ending, all class years entered onto stage in consecutive order with their respective groups. The finale was not the time to hold back. For the company, it provided a moment of togetherness in which all of its members were moving their feet, feeling their combined energy reverberating in this shared space.
Overall, the students’ passion for dance rang clear, demonstrated by their perfect footwork stemming from hours of practice despite being full-time students. Both dancers and faculty seamlessly worked together to put on a performance that was a stunning reminder of how the body has the power to convey an immense amount of feeling and emotion.