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Faculty help student choreographers put their best feet forward

{{youtube:medium:left|6bEMNiYyk64, Orchesis in rehearsal: 'Williamsburg Spring'}}

Bare feet leap across the wooden floor in an Adair Hall studio as a familiar song fills the space. The dancers’ movements change from minimal and controlled to large and carefree, some spinning towards the edges of the floor while others move into the center. Joan Gavaler, Leah Glenn and Denise Damon Wade sit at the front of the imaginary stage and watch with rapt attention. When the music ends, they form a huddle with the piece’s choreographer and share their notes, the movement of the professors’ hands as they speak a dance of its own – one of edification and encouragement.

For months, that scene has been repeated weekly as the members of William & Mary’s Orchesis dance company have prepared for their spring concert, “An Evening of Dance,” which runs March 21-23 in Phi Beta Kappa Hall. The annual event features original works choreographed by students and danced by students, all with the help of William & Mary’s dance faculty.

“It’s a full production process, and it’s really rewarding to see our students grow throughout that process,” said Glenn, associate professor of dance.

Orchesis, which was formed in 1941, is the original coursework of dance at William & Mary, said Gavaler, professor of dance and chair of the Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance.

In the Orchesis class, students would learn about technique and composition and then put those skills into action at a spring concert.

Now, the elements of that one class have been separated into several different classes that are offered through the university’s dance minor program. Any William & Mary student may audition in the fall for the Orchesis dance company. Those who are asked to join the company make a yearlong commitment to the program, which involves not only a spring performance but a fall concert, as well, which features the choreography of faculty members.

For the spring concert, student choreographers make proposals to the dance faculty members, who select what pieces will be used and then work with the students on their ideas.

“It’s kind of an apprenticeship model,” said Gavaler. “Some have done coursework and others have not. They learn by being part of other people’s pieces, and then, when they attempt their own, they learn by getting very direct feedback from us on what they are seeing.”

{{youtube:medium:left|fy3oEO6vz3Y, Orchesis in rehearsal: A faculty 'viewing'}}

The three faculty members conduct a “viewing” of the dances each week to see how the pieces are progressing and help the students as they hone their work and challenge themselves.

“We want them to push harder and take risks, because that’s when the good stuff comes,” said Gavaler.

Although the faculty members offer guidance, they are careful to not overtake any of the pieces.

“It’s their voice,” said Wade, associate professor of dance and director of the dance program. “We want to help them create the best possible piece that they can, so the feedback that we give them might be to point out places where their vision isn’t really coming across in the dancers or the choreography because it is – bottom line – their idea.”

The three faculty members could work individually with students to provide feedback, but they instead choose to work together to offer the choreographers notes.

“We could divide the students up, but we all see different things, and it’s so important for each student to have three different views to pull ideas from,” said Glenn. “I think that’s a plus.”

The students “are very sharp,” said Gavaler.

“They really can figure things out by getting that kind of feedback and applying it independently in the rehearsal,” she said. “It’s very much an environment for leadership growth on the part of those choreographers.”

Helping student choreographers is an art itself as it can involve a lot of emotions and vulnerabilities as students often convey very personal stories or themes in their work.

“It’s a very intimate process,” said Wade. “It’s very heartfelt what they are doing. Even if we don’t necessarily understand what the piece is about, we’re very careful to not step on those ideas and are very careful to let them be the ones who are shaping the ideas.”

The formation of a sense of self-confidence is something that the faculty members hope all of their dance students gain in the end.

“That’s what I think you would take away after William & Mary,” said Gavaler. “The idea that you know what your vision is, that your vision matters, that you have the skills to get the vision out there and you can handle critique in a constructive way and you can develop your ideas but you also don’t put somebody else’s opinion above your own belief in yourself.

“I think that can get you through life in a certain way, whether or not you continue to dance.”