VRDT broaches caffeine, geometry, memory for gala

Danielle Faith Lomi '23, Rachel Walter '22, Annabel Renshaw '20 and Genevieve Walter-Whelan '21 perform Nina, choreographed by Emily Lesorogol '22.

The Bardavon, a downtown Poughkeepsie opera house built in 1869, will host the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre’s (VRDT) 38th annual gala weekend on Saturday, Feb. 29 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 1 at 3 p.m. The gala will be the pinnacle of this year’s VRDT season: 34 of Vassar’s dancers will perform jazz, ballet and modern works choreographed by students and faculty. Most performance pamphlets provide the names of dance pieces, cataloging the choreographers and dancers, but VRDT goes beyond the restrictions of genre and name and personalizes their ensemble.

VRDT members perform Caffeinated, choreographed by Larry Keigwin.

Shake, step-step. Shake, step-step. As a classically trained dancer, VRDT member Olivia Gotsch ’23 shakes off her previous pointe work and elegant ballet extensions in order to embody the character of the harried, overly-caffeinated and off-duty dancer in Caffeinated, complete with sneakers and a coffee cup. This featured genre-bending dance piece, choreographed by NYC-based Larry Keigwin, playfully depicts a group of Starbucks coffee addicts, prompting viewers to call into question their own caffeine habits. It offers an energizing mix of modern, jazz and other styles, packed into nine minutes of dance, served with a dash of humor. Although Caffeinated is a rapidly paced and physically demanding choreography, VRDT dancers manage to have fun throughout: “One of my favorite parts is during the ‘ballerina’ trio about halfway through, when the pace of the piece slows down just enough for me to hear the other dancers laughing in the wings. Like a good audience, it gives me a much-needed boost of energy,” revealed Gotsch.

VRDT members perform carry me., choreographed by Nerissa Tunnessen ’22.

Adding a little dose of seriousness after Caffeinated, Nerissa Tunnessen ’22 choreographed “carry me.” The piece highlighted heaving movements that “very literally bring to life a physical embodiment of emotional burden and support through heavy movement and partnering.” Continued Tunnessen, “For me, each movement and gesture has a purpose and story in conveying that message and feeling.” Tunnessen’s piece is deeply inspired by her background in traditional modern dance and emotive movement, and partly pays homage to her experiences at the Dance Institute of Washington in Washington, D.C., where she spent years practicing ballet and modern with exposure to West African and jazz dance. Tunnessen said she sought to share with her peers her experience of “pouring my entire heart and soul into pieces at home.” She added, “Choreographing is lovely because it is incredible to see visions come to life on other people’s bodies.”

Elliot Hoke ’22 performs Khag, choreographed by Professor Stephen Rooks.

Inspired by a moment last fall when he was listening to a short podcast that mentioned the Hebraic term “khag” (meaning “a circular dance” or a “festival”), Professor of Dance Stephen M. Rooks decided it would be fun to do a short piece that paid homage to the expression. Khag is rife with puns. “The main concept at play behind the piece revolved around circles and circular motion…I would be a sort of central figure or ‘mystic’ providing the impetus for and guiding the piece,” VRDT dancer and Khag protagonist Elliot Hoke ’22 said. “Everyone gets their time to shine in the piece, with my role as the guiding figure being to help break out of and usher in some of the faster group work.” Not only is Hoke the central figure, but to add a little distinctive detail to his role, his costume and choreography include a circular, wide-brimmed hat to flourish mid-dance—which, when viewed from the opera-house balcony, is also a circle!

VRDT members perform Capriccio, choreographed by Professor Miriam Mahdaviani.

“Rikud” is Hebrew for “dance.” For Hannah Littman ’22, the word brings her back to her time at Jewish summer camp, where she participated in fervent bouts of dancing. Littman described, “After sundown on Saturday marking the end of Shabbat, everyone at camp would dance wildly and without care for about an hour.” This vision culminated in her piece, Rikud, capturing “that experience of going from a period of extreme rest to a moment of extreme chaos and physicality.” She recommends the audience to take notice of the performers’ unrestrained joy and exuberance but also take note of the darker side—the forced heterosexuality and gender binary of co-educational summer camps as well as the compulsion to follow ritual. Trained in ballet, jazz and contemporary, Littman’s main focus now is modern and experimental modes such as improvisational and dance-theater methodologies, with which she brings her old memories to life.

VRDT members perform Salt for Sorrow, choreographed by Leslie I. Partridge-Sachs.

Whether it’s Professor of Dance Miriam Mahdaviani’s magical classical ballet piece Capriccio, Emily Lesorogol ’22’s eloquent jazzy creation Nina, Visiting Instructor in Dance and Drama Leslie I. Partridge-Sachs’ modern arrangement Salt For Sorrow, or any of the aforementioned, intensely personal pieces, the collection of performances will showcase the immense talent of Vassar’s repertoire dancers. And it’s not just talent that these students have to offer—they are mindful of the effect of their artwork on the audience. VRDT dancer Weipeng Xie ’21 demonstrated both the group’s enthusiasm and ultimate creative goals, musing, “I hope to give the audience their own voices, narratives and characters to the dances and make the Bardavon experience unique and significant to each and every person who comes to the show.”

Tickets can be purchased in the College Center in Main Building. Free shuttles will take students to the Bardavon and back.

All photos courtesy of Yesmina Townsley ’23.

[Correction Feb 27, 2020: A previous version of this article indicated that VRDT stood for Vassar Repertory Dance Team. VRDT refers to the Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre.]

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