Professor’s dance company seeks to entertain, inspire, challenge
As the sound of rain and whispering fills the studio atop Adair Hall, Frank Sponn is the picture of a man at war with himself, willing his shaking hands into a show of strength – biceps flexed – before finally collapsing onto a gray box. Kayla Moore emerges slowly behind him, sliding her arms down his arms until the two begin to dance, sometimes in harmony, other times at odds, with Moore even snapping her fingers at Sponn in frustration.
Leah Glenn sits backward on a chair at the front of the room, watching the dance unfold.
“Abs engaged,” she says, as the dancers attempt a lift.
Glenn knows every step in the piece about a man with post-traumatic stress disorder. The associate professor of dance at William & Mary created them all. And though Sponn and Moore have graduated, they are back in town this summer to help bring their former professor’s choreography to life, along with other alumni, current students and local dance professionals as part of the Leah Glenn Dance Theatre.
The company, which seeks to “cultivate a greater understanding of the world through thought-provoking dance works that entertain, inspire and challenge,” will perform a variety of pieces choreographed by Glenn at the Kimball Theatre July 18 at 7:30 p.m.
Glenn formed the company three years ago, but she’s always wanted to have her own, she said, primarily so that she’d have more time to develop her work.
“When you’re in an academic setting, you have deadlines, classes, other things you are focusing on at the same time,” she said. “And so having a company allows me to develop the work to whatever extent I would like.”
Glenn’s other primary goal in forming the company was to bring students, alumni and professionals together so that they could learn from each other.
“It makes for a really rich environment to work in, people with all backgrounds,” said Glenn. “Part of my philosophy is that everybody has something valuable to bring to the table, and I feel that when they come from various backgrounds, they bring with them unique perspectives.”
The company also allows former students and alumni who may not have the chance to dance professionally an opportunity to perform at that level.
Since graduating, Sponn '14 and Moore '13 have gone on auditions, but “in some ways, to dance full-time, it’s like being an athlete,” said Sponn, who minored in dance at W&M and was a member of the Orchesis Dance Company. “Besides being really good, you have to be lucky – and you’re going to be poor no matter what.”
And yet, the thrill of being on stage makes all of the time and work worth it, said Sponn.
“Being on stage is an amazing experience. It makes me very nervous, and it makes me very anxious. But there’s a reason why I come back and keep doing this, and there’s a reason why you take all these classes,” he said. “There’s something indescribable about that shared experience with the audience. You have to live with what you did on the stage, and then when it goes really right, it’s the best feeling in the whole world.”
And so, having the chance to dance again – and with a professor they both respect and admire greatly –inspired the pair to travel down from Northern Virginia over the last two summers to be a part of Glenn’s company.
“She was the first dance teacher I had at William & Mary,” said Moore. “She really pushed me and always challenged me in the best ways. She’s really easy to work with. She explains things very well. I liked her classes because they are really strength-based.”
Glenn teaches the Horton technique, which is more rigorous and structured than some other modern dance techniques – almost a modern equivalent of ballet, Sponn said. You can see the influence of this technique on her choreography.
“She really grooves,” Sponn said.
“And, on a personal level, we groove with her,” Moore added.
Glenn’s choreography always focuses on human experiences, which, unlike some modern dance pieces, makes them very accessible for a variety of audiences, Sponn said..
For the upcoming concert at the Kimball, the program will include, among other pieces, Sponn and Moore’s duet, which is an excerpt from a larger piece titled “Perceived Threat”; “Hush” and “Grounded in Flight,” two works inspired by individuals on the autism spectrum; a duet titled “Gemini” that is a playful homage to Glenn’s Zodiac sign; as well as a pieces inspired by over-commitment and human trafficking.
“A lot of my work is abstract, but I’m hoping people will pull away the gist of it, or, whatever they are going through, they can relate to it in some way,” said Glenn.
Although the company has only performed in Williamsburg so far, the Leah Glenn Dance Theatre was recently invited to perform on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. next spring. The cast for that performance will not only include Glenn’s current dancers, but Parisa Khobdeh, principal dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Jamal Story, former dance captain for the Broadway production of Motown the Musical.
Eventually, Glenn would like the company to tour, perhaps when she’s on research leave in 2016-2017, but she’s more interested in the creative process than filling huge theatres across the country.
“I like the idea of it existing for the dance, for the creation of the work,” she said. “It’s the process I love. I’m excited about the process and just the idea that Leah Glenn Dance Theatre is mine and can change and be whatever it needs to be for me and the dancers.”
Working with the company over the past three years has taught Glenn a lot about herself artistically, she said, and it has informed her teaching as well – allowing her to better articulate what she expects from her students. And though she is looking forward to the upcoming show at the Kimball, Glenn enjoys the process almost more than the finished product, she said.
“The choreographic process is exciting because it’s an opportunity to see dancers reach milestones and provides a space to explore ideas that I might not have initially thought of coming about as a result of a particular project; it’s always a surprise,” she said. “Every day is different. I think that’s the most rewarding thing about it.”