Sarah in Dance

Sara and 13 other Meadows dance students, along with an alumna, were selected to perform the Martha Graham ballet Primitive Mysteries for the Fall Dance Concert in November 2007.

The end of the ‘Mystery’

dance-2.jpgAfter a long weekend, we are finally at the end of our journey through Primitive Mysteries. What an adventure! We rehearsed in the studio for only three weeks before going into tech, dress, and then the actual run of the show, but it seems like Mysteries has consumed our semester.

Last Saturday afternoon, SMU dance students found themselves inside the Hope auditorium. Instead of being onstage, however, we sat in the audience along with the public to listen to a panel discussion on Graham’s Primitive Mysteries. The panel was made up of Historian Shelley Berg, our Division Chair and former member of the Graham Company Myra Woodruff, former pianist for the Graham Company Greg Presley, and noted dance critics Clive Barnes and Mindy Aloff. Because of Yuriko’s injury, the notator for the piece, Sandra Aberkalns, gladly sat in.

Before the panel began, I was acting as an usher to the public and was introduced to Mr. Barnes’ wife, Valerie Taylor, who used to dance with the Royal Ballet. She asked me what I thought I might learn from this discussion. I answered that I honestly didn’t think that there was much more to learn, having been immersed in the piece for so long.

I was wrong! As the panel shared their recollections of their first impressions upon seeing the piece or rehearsing it, along with their opinions on what reconstructing Martha’s work meant, I began to see the importance of our roles as dancers in this work.

dance-4.jpgEnding the Mystery dancers’ experience, we had a three-hour filming session on Monday documenting the entire piece. It was quite the test of will. It is one thing to perform a piece once in front of an audience, or even to do it twice in a row in the studio. But to repeat the same movement many times over after a long week of calling on those muscles, made me wonder how much more my body could take. I’m so proud of the cast, though; everyone kept their spirits up and cheered each other on as the directors worked to make sure that not one person was off. At the end of the filming, it was as if everyone could breathe again. We were given a break from our dance technique classes the next day.

dance-3.jpgMaintaining her elegance and dignity despite suffering from a slipped disk in her back, Yuriko made her last visit to Meadows to see our performance on Saturday night. As soon as we got offstage, we ran to the dressing room to visit with her. She left us with many words of wisdom and inspiration. She had felt that this was our “most giving” performance of the piece and thanked us as though we had danced just for her. The truth is, we performed that way because of her. As we lined up to hug the teary-eyed teacher, I realized how much she had influenced us. She had touched each of the cast members in a way that made us feel as though she had become a part of the Meadows dance family. As we said our goodbyes, pianist Greg Presley commented, “You know, you all are like dancer grandchildren now.”

We will always know what we have accomplished, based on the improvement that we apparently showed and definitely felt. It has been an experience of a lifetime for all of the Mystery dancers, one that will be taken with us throughout our artistic careers.

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Show time: See you at Bob Hope Theatre!

Well, it is finally here – show week! The cast has now gone through all of the tech rehearsals and one dress. Now all we have left is two more dress rehearsals before the actual show on Wednesday.

dance2.jpgSaturday we had a long dress rehearsal that followed a master class given by dancers from Doug Varone, who was in town for a performance with TITAS at McFarlin Auditorium. I have unfortunately been ill and so had to watch the class and rehearsal that followed. It was a long Saturday of dancing for everyone, but I think we handled it very well. The SMU dancers in the class were excited to be there and eager to learn a new style, especially since this year’s Hope Show focuses mainly on our school’s strengths, which are classical ballet, Graham technique and classical jazz.

dance1.jpgIn watching the dress rehearsal, it is clear how prepared we are for this show. Sometimes when a show goes into dress rehearsal, there are a few pieces or sections of dances that the dancers are nervous about working out onstage. This semester’s Hope Show is very ready, though. Nothing was unstable, and all of the dancers seemed comfortable and ready to perform. This is such a good thing going into performance week. It gives us a chance to add a little creativity to our expression, which is what being an artistic performer is all about. Even in a group piece like “Primitive Mysteries,” we have to constantly explore that group dynamic and feel each other presence onstage in order to get the “magic” Yuriko is always talking about.

It was quite an experience for me on Saturday to watch a dance that I was supposed to be onstage in at that moment. Erica, a fellow “Primitive” dancer, covered my spot, on the spot, quite well, thankfully. I think what made it even more of a memorable moment was that I sat in the back of the theater with Yuriko and got to hear her talk about the piece as it was being performed. She pointed out many things as it happened, like when the tempo was too fast or how good it looked when the whole group breathed together. I loved watching everyone get into the piece. The cast did a great job of really performing the work instead of just going through the motions of the steps, as is prone to happen on a Saturday when you’re tired.

Look forward to a very strong performance from us this semester. We are ready for Hope Show, with a beautiful, romantic ballet duet, classic Graham and a fresh new jazz piece set to Duke Ellington to close. The show is quite an adventure, and each act takes you to a new place! It starts Wednesday and goes through Sunday with performances at 8 p.m., except for Sunday at 2 p.m. Hope to see you there!

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Studio to Stage: The Run-Through

Thursday, we had our Designer Run-Through. This is where all the pieces in Hope Show, the division of dance’s main stage production, finally come together and are run in show order.

This year, we did the run-through on the stage, opposed to the studio. This gives the lighting designer a chance to get a feel for the production and plot the lights accordingly. For “Primitive Mysteries,” the designs have already been set and sent down from New York. In order to accurately portray Martha Graham’s original choreography, we must use her costume and lighting design, as well as have permission from the company.

On stage, in costume
It was interesting trying to attempt to do the piece on stage without ever rehearsing there prior. Even though we do all that we can to mark off the studio imitating the space of the stage, it always feels different once you get into the theater. Also, it was only the second time that we had rehearsed in the costumes, which are beautiful long blue dresses for the villagers and a white flowing dress for Mary.

One could say our run was rough, but the other two pieces, Ben Stevenson’s “End of Time” and Danny Buraczeski’s “Umbra,” looked great and definitely bring a dynamic of their own to the show.

Caught on film
One thing that I’ve never experienced before Thursday was the broadcast filming that took place. We had PBS there to film our pieces with 3 cameras and a video feed showing all the shots. Performing on stage for a live audience is familiar, but when it is for film, it is an entirely different feeling. It can make a dancer even more anxious, knowing that what they produce will be seen again. In a way though, it prepares us for the professional life of a dancer, and also gets the cast ready for the Dance Notation Bureau’s recording the day after Hope Show.

Yuriko seems pleased with the cast’s progression. After the run on stage, she came in and was blunt as usual, telling us the things that needed fixing but understanding the state of our performance. From here we have one more rehearsal in the studio, and then it is to the stage for spacing, tech and dress rehearsals. I know we will be ready by the time the piece opens; for now we’re working on finding that “magic” of the theater with this powerful group work. I hope to have more pictures soon of the costumes and, of course, Yuriko!

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Mary’s life in dance

Now in our second week of rehearsals, we have set the entire 20-minute piece. The work explores the stages of Mary’s life in three sections titled “Hymn to the Virgin,” “Crucifixus” and “Hosannah.”

yuriko.jpg It includes 12 core women as well as Mary, a very special part originally played by Martha Graham herself. In order to make this production work, the dancer chosen for the part by SMU would need that unique quality. Recent graduate Jenny Gillan, who now studies at the Graham school, was the perfect choice. This has become clearer as rehearsals have advanced. Having Yuriko as director makes this a meticulous process and, for someone playing her important role, even more so.

Yuriko’s inspiration
For some, it seems that greatness is inevitable. Yuriko is one of those individuals. Each night, we learn a little more of her amazing life story. One extraordinary fact is that as a Japanese-American citizen, she was placed in an internment camp for a year and a half. She says that when she moved to start her new life in New York, she was “hungry to learn,” and she “gobbled up” all the information she could find.

As we attend to her stories, enjoying a little breather from the aerobically demanding piece, I contemplate the important life lessons that we are receiving daily. Moments like these remind me why I love dancing so much. Yuriko’s lessons can be applied to persons of any lifestyle. She preaches the necessity of living with vibrancy and purpose by saying such things as, “The Pieta is made of stone and yet, it can be more alive than flesh,” or “Once you’re dead you’re gone. You don’t want to be dead when you’re alive!” My personal favorites include “Curiosity!” and “Sense!” and, of course, “Your thighs look like pate.”

“Cleaning” up
Now, we have begun cleaning the piece. It is what dancers consider the “nitty-gritty.” We take care to ensure that everyone is on the same foot, aligned with arms at the same angle. The importance of these details varies from piece to piece, but with “Primitive Mysteries” the concept of community is emphasized, and so the cleaning process takes a very long time.

By 10 PM, I find my entire body fatigued with muscles tightened beyond any hope of relaxation. Still, I’m a bit more enlightened and very excited about our progress. We now have a few days to clean and to add the live musicians before the designer run-through on Thursday.

There are so many exciting things going on with this work for SMU. Not only do we have Yuriko here, but the pianist from the Graham school will be playing for us along with two SMU music students. The dance critic for The New York Times is also coming all the way to Dallas just to review our production. The pressure is on, but our program is up to the challenge! For the “Mystery” dancers reading this, keep up the good work!

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Three Weeks Until Curtain!

“I could have danced all night” with Yuriko!

Remember seeing The King and I or Anna and the King? The first movie was made in 1956 and was based on a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Within these stories is Anna’s interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Little do non-enthusiasts know, the original Broadway musical and movie featured a classical dancer as the character Eliza.

Yuriko, the first to set goal roles for future achievers in the dance world as we know it today, was the dancer in that 1950s film and the originator of the role on Broadway. Also, besides the renowned choreographer, she is recognized for being the first dancer to play the role of Virgin Mary in Martha Graham’s monumental “Primitive Mysteries.” For our studios to be graced by the one-name legend, now 87 years old, the Division of Dance is extremely honored. Even more exciting, though, is the fact that we have the good fortune of learning and notating Graham’s signature piece for the Dance Notation Bureau.

Part of the process of being a dancer is the audition. To prepare for our rapid rehearsal pace, we cast “Primitive Mysteries” during our first week back at SMU. Calling only female dancers who had at least one year’s experience in the modern technique, Division Head Myra Woodruff and long-time professor Nathan Montoya, both former dancers in the Graham Company, carefully viewed each of us. After a six-hour audition, the dancers had learned much of the dance’s choreography along with what would be required to be a part of the work.

Now, nine weeks later, costumes are being constructed, casting is being finalized, and Yuriko is here! There are so many memorable stories that she has to share with us, and which I am sure will stick with me forever. Three weeks until the curtain goes up, and we’ve just begun!

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