MODfest 2022: A Spotlight on Student Choreography

Despite the slush and ice that covered the sidewalks and roads of campus on Friday, Feb. 4, crowds came out to Kenyon Hall’s Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater to see the only dance presentation of this year’s MODfest. The Vassar Repertory Dance Theatre (VRDT) shared the stage with Battery Dance Company, a dance troupe based in New York City. VRDT performed a condensed version of their fall 2021 program, presenting five dances that showcased the talent of the company. The group of 37 dancers––under the direction of Dance Department faculty John Meehan, Leslie Partridge Sachs and Steve Rooks––moved together across the stage to music that ranged from swelling orchestral tracks and heavy percussion beats to jazzy hits by Billy Joel. 

Due to the increased COVID-19 rates at Vassar this semester, VRDT’s dancers performed masked in Kenyon, unlike during their fall Final Showings. Another major impact of the pandemic on VRDT was a lack of rehearsal time, as VRDT dancer Helen Ambrose ’25 told me. VRDT’s first rehearsals for MODfest were delayed due to COVID-19, meaning that the company’s first run of the program since last semester was less than two weeks before the show. Some dancers, like Ambrose, spend over ten hours a week on VRDT commitments during the semester, so getting back into the swing of things after the lengthy winter vacation was a significant adjustment. Ambrose expressed that starting the semester with MODfest was a good transition back to dance for the company, stating, “It’s honestly nice to come back from break and have a sense of familiarity.”

The program opened with “Untitled,” which was created by guest choreographer Jennifer Archibald. The piece’s powerfully eerie techno tracks led into soundbites from an interview where the influential performance artist Marina Abramović equates the artist’s need to create to their need to breathe. The audience was transfixed as the dancers, dressed in white and adorned with black armbands, moved to the booming bass of the opening number’s haunting music.

The next piece, “HOMES,” choreographed by student-choreographer and VRDT member Olivia Gotsch ’23, was a standout piece in Friday’s program. The only student-choreographed piece selected to be performed in MODfest, “HOMES” was inspired by Gotsch’s childhood and Midwestern roots. Gotsch grew up reading Holling C. Holling’s children’s book “Paddle-to-the-Sea,” a favorite from her parents’ childhoods, too. Gotsch said, “[The book] tells the story of this little kid who carves a toy canoe and puts it into the headwaters of Lake Superior. It follows the boat’s journey all the way through the Great Lakes and, finally, out to the Atlantic Ocean.” The music Gotsch used for “HOMES” was also influenced by the classic  children’s book. Third Coast Percussion, a musical group based in Gotsch’s native Chicago, created a sound score inspired by a 1966 short film adaptation of “Paddle-to-the-Sea.” Third Coast Percussion’s “The Locks” is fast-paced and intensely rhythmic––the perfect backtrack for Gotsch’s beautifully choreographed piece. According to Gotsch, “A lot of the piece is about chaos and coming to terms with chaos, and being comfortable with not having to order the world according to what you think is best.”

Last semester, Gotsch spent every weekend working on “HOMES” with her cast of six dancers. Going into auditions, Gotsch had a certain type of dancer in mind for her piece: “I was looking for dancers who I felt were strong. Not just technically strong, but very powerful movers. I don’t really like delicate dancing. I don’t like wishy-washiness, so I wanted dancers who had some kind of attack, and I think I ended up with a really great cast.” An experienced choreographer, Gotsch used the Horton Technique, a modern dance technique practiced at prestigious dance institutions like Alvin Ailey, for her first piece of choreography at Vassar. She learned the Horton Technique as a student in Chicago, and she says of her lengthy experience as a dancer, “That training definitely played a huge role in the type of choreography I was working with.” Every weekend, she worked tirelessly with her cast, teaching them new phrases and moves as the semester progressed. 

Ambrose, who danced in “HOMES,” described her experience dancing in a student-choreographed piece as incredibly positive. Ambrose said, “I have experience dancing with Olivia  [in Professor Rooks’s piece, ‘Table and Chair’] so it was really cool to also watch her creative process and see how she translates her dance background into choreography.” Ambrose and Gotsch both told me how important dancer feedback was in the creation of “HOMES.” Ambrose noted that “Olivia was very open to student voice and what [the dancers] were capable of doing or thought would be a good transition.” Gotsch said, “Coming to it as someone who is also currently a dancer, it was important to me that [the dancers] felt comfortable with the dance, so we would talk through things a lot. I wanted to make sure they felt okay with certain moves to make sure that things felt good on their bodies, because that’s important to me too.” Watching Gotsch create “HOMES” over the course of the semester inspired Ambrose to consider choreographing a piece of her own in the future: “It’s definitely not something I had thought about previously, but I feel like it’s something I could do after seeing other students like Olivia attempt it and succeed,” she explained.

Friday’s program ended with a performance by New York City’s Battery Dance Company. Battery Dance performed one longer number, “Observatory,” which––according to the MODfest program––“is named for the Cape Town neighborhood where its choreographer Theo Ndindwa resides.” The 5 dancers cascaded across the stage together to a lively mash-up of lighting and music. Prior to the performance, the group announced a new initiative to encourage dance education in Poughkeepsie Public Schools starting in the fall of 2022, an announcement received with much applause by the audience. 

Last week’s MODfest performance is just the start of an exciting semester of dance for VRDT. Much of the company’s fall repertory will continue in the spring, along with new student choreography additions. There are a lot of long weeks of rehearsal ahead for VRDT, but as Gotsch told me and Ambrose echoed, “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”


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