Visitors to George Mason University’s Fairfax campus over the next four days might notice a singular unifying characteristic among the hundreds of people roving around there.
Though different genders, ages, races, ethnicities and body types, all will likely move with singular grace in space.
The reason for this distinctive attribute is easy to explain. Between March 8 and 11, when many of GMU’s students will be away on spring break, its School of Dance is hosting the American College Dance Festival Association’s annual mid-Atlantic regional conference.
GMU is welcoming to the Festival—whose spaces filled in a mere 25 minutes--more than 560 dance students and dance faculty (including its own approximately 70 dance students) from 20 universities across the region.
Besides the prestige, as the host school, GMU receives a percentage of the registration fee, which Susan Shields, director of GMU’s School of Dance, hopes will be used to fund dance student scholarships.
Also participating in the Festival—whose theme is “Imagine … A Life in Dance”--will be a diverse group of “world-class” dancers and experts in the field, who are living proof that a life in dance does not need to end at middle age and may take many rewarding forms.
Classes in every type of dance--taught by GMU faculty and special guests--will be offered from morning through night all four days.
“We want [participants] to be absolutely stimulated, on fire and loving dance even more than before,” enthused Shields, 48, on a recent afternoon.
Joined by Karen Reedy, an assistant professor of dance, and Tom Reynolds, director of artistic programming at GMU’s Center for the Arts, Shields added, “We want them to take this experience back to their schools and their world.”
Among the illustrious dance professionals sharing their insights and life experiences will be members of a superstar panel, presented Sunday and open to the public.
Panel members include: Robert Battle, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Elisa Monte, a dance pioneer, artistic director of Elisa Monte Dance and former Martha Graham dancer; Ashley Wheater, artistic director of The Joffrey Ballet; Kyle Abraham, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and artistic director of Abraham.In.Motion; Deborah Jowitt, a legendary dance critic and author; and choreographer Elizabeth Parkinson, Tony-nominated star of Broadway’s “Movin’ Out,” as well as a classic ballet dancer and teacher. Suzanne Carbonneau, a leading dance scholar at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, will introduce panel members.
To underscore the Festival’s theme that a life in dance is entirely possible, photos of each panelist at the age of 18 will be projected behind them as they speak.
“I’m not a show off, but if we can show off, we can show off about this,” Shields gushed about the stellar panel.
Equally enthused, Reynolds, 57, suggested: “For any of these students, to hear even one of these people talk is an incredible experience. To hear all of these people talk, it can truly be life changing. Everyone has moments in life where they have these revelations. This is something where those revelations are waiting to be born.”
Panel member Ashley Wheater, artistic director of The Joffrey Ballet, epitomizes the Festival’s inspirational theme. Wheater, 55, who discovered dance at the tender age of six, after a lifetime as a celebrated principal dancer and then ballet master, took over the leadership of the 40-member Joffrey in 2007 at a time of acute challenges when the famed company greatly needed an infusion of new energy and creativity.
Since then The Joffrey, whose two performances coincide with the Festival’s opening, has thrived by both honoring its history and its classical ballet roots as well as consciously pushing its boundaries with newly commissioned contemporary works that are a “vital component” of Wheater’s leadership.
“I feel so incredibly fortunate,” said Wheater, speaking by phone from The Joffrey’s Chicago home.
Recounting a personal history straight out of “Billy Elliot,” Wheater, a boy growing up on a farm near the small English industrial town of Wellington, recalled going with his mother to pick up his sisters from ballet class. Immediately “captivated,” he asked to join.
Like the fictional Billy Elliot, his first teacher, Mary Hockney quickly recognized his innate talent and musicality, and with her guidance, by the age of 10 he had auditioned and been accepted to study at the Royal Ballet School in London. By the age of 20, he already was a principal dancer with the London Festival Ballet, which he joined on the advice of mentor Rudolph Nureyev.
A former principal dancer with the Australian and San Francisco Ballets, too, Wheater said, “Since I was six years old, not a day has gone by that I haven’t danced. … And I’ve had incredible teachers all along the way.”
Carrying on this legacy of education, The Joffrey, under Wheater’s leadership, now has a dance program in 40 Chicago schools, annually reaching between 7,000 and 8,000 children of all backgrounds.
“Seeing the difference it makes in their lives is very moving,” he said of the discipline and other skills dance training instills whether or not it leads a young person to a life in dance.
Reflecting on his own good fortune, among the messages Wheater hopes to bring to the young dancers attending the GMU Festival is that luck is only one piece of a successful career.
“People can give you opportunities,” he said, “but you are only as good as the work you put in. … Keep pushing yourself to the limit, and you have to keep doing it day after day. … Be there in the moment 110 percent.”
Despite the long hours in the studio and the inevitable injuries, Wheater, who retired from dancing in 1997 and went into other important phases of his dance career, said: “I’ve never thought of my work as a job. … I’ve loved every minute of it, even in the worse times.”
The Joffrey’s two GMU programs, both starting at 8 p.m., include: “American Legends” on Friday, March 7, and “Body & Soul” on Saturday, March 8, the opening night of the Festival.
“American Legends” features Jerome Robbins’ “Interplay,” Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs” and Stanton Welch’s “Son of Chamber Symphony.”
“Body & Soul,” which Wheater described as a program of “deep emotions,” features Yuri Possokhov’s “Bells,” set to seven piano compositions by Rachmaninoff; Brock Clawson’s “Crossing Ashland” and Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31.”
“Over these two days,” he promised, “you will see the entire company and what we’re about.”
The Festival will conclude with a Gala Concert and star turn for participants. It will feature 10 dances selected from an adjudicated competition that begins with nearly 50 submissions.
Each participating university is bringing two dances that will be blind judged by three distinguished dance artists, including: Zvi Gotheiner, a teacher and choreographer; Sarah Skaggs, a performer and choreographer; and Sylvia Waters, artistic director emerita of Ailey II.
Two dances from the Gala Concert will be selected for presentation at the National College Dance Festival held June 5-7 at the Kennedy Center.
This is an extraordinarily busy time for GMU’s School of Dance. The School’s own version of March Madness, Shields and Reedy suggested.
Just prior to the Festival, GMU’s dance faculty was immersed in auditioning close to 200 prospective freshman, out of which 30 or so will be accepted.
The number of applicants to the School of Dance, Shields said, is up 33 percent from last year and the levels of ability also are “going up, up, up!”
Shields ascribed this “thrilling” increase to the school’s growing reputation. More and more, she said, she is hearing from dance companies and choreographers that they can “tell a Mason dancer.”
In addition to their versatile, high-level training in both ballet and contemporary dance, “they take classes intelligently, are musical and know how to move boldly in space,” Shields said.
Elaborating, Reynolds quoted famed choreographer Mark Morris, a frequent GMU visitor who also is renowned for his outspoken, no-nonsense judgments. He recalled Morris saying: “Even the students who are not the best dancers are incredibly well trained.”
The level of talent in GMU’s School of Dance will be on full display March 28 and 29, at 8 p.m. each evening, when it presents its annual Gala Concert, which is open to the public.
The Gala program features a premiere by Reedy, 38, and works by renowned guest choreographers Mark Morris, Robert Battle and Kyle Abraham.
“Merging students and professionals, bridging the two worlds, is something we do all the time … and it’s great for them to see their works done with different bodies,” Reedy said.
Shields added, “Our students are not only their future dancers but their educated audiences. … We’re also giving continued life to dances that may no longer be in their repertoires.”
As valuable, Reynolds enthused, “it’s also fun for the professionals to know they’ve made a difference.”