Dancing into spring at Wesleyan

By Lucile Bruce

I don’t know about you, but after weeks of treading on snow and ice, I can’t wait to put my feet on the ground this spring.

The Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University (CFA) seems to have anticipated that feeling. Director Pamela Tatge and her team have put together a spring dance program worthy of the season of renewal. Dance in many varieties is here, from modern American to ballet to indigenous works from Brazil and Hawaii. You’ll find dance in the classroom, too, where it’s being used to unearth connections between artistic practice and modes of academic inquiry.

First up: DanceMasters Weekend, March 5-6. This annual gathering — now in its 12th year — is one of the most anticipated dance events in the Northeast. As stated in the program guide, DanceMasters’ “combination of master classes and performances by premier companies has made this immersion in dance an important retreat for students, professionals and enthusiasts — for anyone wanting to learn the latest techniques or sample the work of leading choreographers.”

This year’s showcase performance (Saturday, March 5) features two giants of the dance world, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, along with Gallim Dance, a relative newcomer to the field. Andrea Miller, Gallim’s founder and artistic director, is the winner of the CFA’s annual Mariam McGlone Emerging Choreographer Award. By design, the showcase performance offers variety and contrast — this year, between modern and classical forms, highly individual artistic visions, and dramatically different themes.

There’s a dazzling array of master classes, too — no surprise, as this university is serious about dance education. Ronald K. Brown and Suzanne Farrell will teach, as will members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Limon Dance Company, and several others. There are 12 classes in total, including jazz, tap, and West African dance. But reserve early — DanceMasters Weekend does sell out.

Gallim Dance Artistic Director and Choreographer Andrea Miller leads the company in a DanceMasters Weekend Showcase Performance at Wesleyan University on March 5. Photo by Christopher Duggan

Then the dream of spring comes true (vernal equinox: March 20) and the CFA’s stages explode with color, song, and story as they feature two visiting dance companies from parts of the world deeply shaped by colonialism.

Viver Brasil, based in Los Angeles, takes the stage March 25-26 in a performance of traditional and contemporary dance from the Bahia region of Brazil. Bahia, historically the center of the early Brazilian slave trade, is the region of Brazil with the strongest African roots. At Wesleyan, the company will perform its most recent work, Alaafia, meaning “peace, harmony.”

Alaafia, a reference to the African god of peace, is part of Viver Brasil’s touring program Feet on the Ground. According to the company, “In Afro-Brazilian culture, one needs to feel one’s feet on earth because in the earth there is axé, divine energy. So to connect to the cosmic world, one must feel the earth in order to move into the air, jump in the air, leap in the air.

“Traditional Afro-Brazilian dance allows us to feel the earth, and with that in contemporary dance we can expand upon our movement capabilities, our technical abilities to reach to another realm, both physically and spiritually.”

Viver Brasil features lavish costumes and — importantly — live music.

“It’s rare that dancers on tour perform with live music,” Tatge points out; the cost typically exceeds arts presenters’ budgets.

Tatge says it’s been decades since the CFA has presented a Brazilian company. With Viver Brazil, says Tatge, audiences will be able to enter into the many riches of Brazil — its people, its dance, its complex history.

H¯alau o Keikiali’i also plants its feet firmly on the ground. The company’s April 8 performance, KaWa Hula: Hula Through Time, unveils the history of Hawaii through chants, music, dance, and storytelling. H¯alau o Keikiali’i is a traditional Hawaiian performance ensemble based in San Francisco and led by master artist Kawika Keikiali’ihiwahiwa Alfiche.

Delve into the history of U.S. colonialism in Hawaii and you’ll quickly uncover questions about just whose ground it is. In the 19th century, missionaries from New England — including several from Connecticut — arrived in Hawaii and began to exert power over the Hawaiian monarchy. Their influence led to the Great Mahele or “land division” of 1848 guaranteeing private ownership of land, a concept that was alien to native Hawaiians.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet performs in a Dance- Masters Weekend Showcase Performance at Wesleyan University on March 5. Photo by Carol Pratt

Seen through this lens, native Hawaiian cultural practices are today a form of reclamation: the reassertion of ancient community stories and values that were disrupted by colonialism.

As Tatge points out, West Coasters have ample opportunities to experience Hawaiian culture; here on the East Coast, such opportunities are uncommon, and few New Englanders understand the historical connection between Hawaii and our region. A pre-performance talk by J. Kehaulani Kauanui, associate professor of anthropology and American studies at Wesleyan and an expert on Pacific Island culture and history, will deepen audience appreciation for KaWa Hula.

“We never present things in a vacuum,” says Tatge. “We always contextualize them as much as we can with the scholars we have on campus.”

At the CFA, Tatge has taken this effort far beyond traditional pre-performance talks and post-show conversations with artists. Under her leadership, the arts are reaching directly into classrooms, where visiting artists and faculty members are pioneering methods for interdisciplinary learning across the university curriculum.

“We live our lives on the earth,” says William Herbst. “We walk around the earth day and night. Yet most of us don’t know where the earth came from or how it got here.”

This spring Herbst — Wesleyan’s John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy and an expert on the origins of the earth — is collaborating with renowned choreographer Liz Lerman in the teaching of her seminar, “Ways of Knowing: The Use of Creative Research and Artmaking Practices.” Students will explore the theme of “origins,” presented from three academic disciplines: astronomy, physics, and religion.

Throughout, Lerman will apply a choreographer’s tools to academic inquiry, using “creative research” methods she has developed over the past 30 years to explore the subject of origins through dance, and vice versa.

Herbst, who’s taught at Wesleyan since 1978, enjoyed the first session with Lerman in which he lectured about the origins of the earth.

“She (Lerman) interspersed that with movement and reflection and thoughts about how this could be used as a take-off point for artistic creation,” he recalls.

It was a different kind of classroom experience.

“I don’t normally ask people to stand up and walk around and talk to each other, and maybe take off on some inspiration they might have had during a lecture,” he says.

If the CFA program offers studies in contrast, here’s another one: Herbst believes that artists and scientists have similar creative processes, yet as a scientist, he says, he doesn’t employ the same methods as Lerman.

“We use a totally different language,” Herbst explains.

Scientists, he says, seek to discover an objective reality, while the work of the artist is more internal.

“In science, all of our ideas are tested against nature,” he says. “Our experiments are our attempts to get nature to reveal itself. There’s an objective reality, and our creative process is aimed at teasing that out.

“I think artists ultimately have the sense that there is some kind of reality or truth that transcends their opinion, and they edge toward that. They find that truth in themselves. When they find it, it turns out to be part of the universal truth.”

Now that’s solid ground at the CFA — dance as knowledge, dance as experience, dance as the start of great conversations.

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