F&M dancers will perform Martha Graham piece “Celebration” in NYC

BY SHIRA KIPNEES ’15
Staff Writer

Twelve F&M student dancers will be performing at the Joyce Theatre in New York City (NYC) Feb. 23.

The dancers will be a part of a program titled “University Partners Showcase,” which will feature the Martha Graham repertory being performed by other college dance departments as part of the Martha Graham Dance Company 2013 Season.

The F&M Dancers first debuted this piece, entitled “Celebration,” in the Fall Dance Concert, Nov. 29 through Dec. 1 in Roschel Performing Arts Center at Schnader Theatre.

The dancers began rehearsals in September, but since two cast members decided to study abroad this semester, two new cast members were added and started rehearsals in December.

Jennifer Conley, visiting assistant professor of dance and director of “Celebration,” explained a personal connection inspired her to select this piece.

“Since I stopped dancing with the company in 2006, I have been working as a regisseur with the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, which means I have been staging Martha Graham’s ballets for colleges and universities across the country and abroad,” Conley said. “‘Celebration’ is one of Martha Graham’s works from the 1930’s, which was a fertile period for all modern arts. In these early works of hers, the movement vocabulary is stark, geometric, robust, and minimal, all qualities that bode well when teaching dancers who are new to the Graham repertory.

“The original cast of ‘Celebration’ in 1934 was a group of strong, passionate, and spirited women and I wanted to find a cast with similar qualities to bring out the presence of individuals within this ensemble piece,” Conley continued.

“‘Celebration’ is also really challenging — it is physically demanding and rigorous. The dancers are performing with marvelous athleticism!”

Conley made sure to stay in touch with her contacts at the company to see if she could provide her F&M students the opportunity to perform for them.

“I had been in contact with the Artistic Director of the company, Janet Eilber, back in June, to let her know that I would be teaching and staging ‘Celebration’ at F&M in the Fall and that we would love to be considered for the University Partners Showcase,” Conley said. “I stayed in touch with both Janet and Suzy Upton, director of resources and licensing, until they were able to say that we were indeed included in that program.”

“Celebration” debuted Feb. 25, 1934 at the Guild Theatre in NYC and is described by the Graham Company as “a minimalist study of joy. It is a classic example of the stark abstraction of Graham’s formative years and the vocabulary that she was creating — clear, forceful gesture full of angularities and gruff athleticism. Originally danced by a cast of twelve women, ‘Celebration’ is pure, austere, succinct expression. It has no [storyline] but is exuberance itself.”

Conley and the 12 dancers, Olivia Clark ’14, Emily Hawk ’16, Abby Komlenic ’13, Kathryn Komlenic ’15, Gwendolyn LeBar ’14, Jessica Pignatelli ’13, Kaitlin Rabinowitz ’15, Bianca Santos ’14, Alison Shupp ’16, Elizabeth Yutzey ’16, Sarah Strong ’14, and Lila Ziegler ’13, will depart for NYC on Feb. 21 and will return to campus on the evening after the concert on Feb. 23.

The dancers will be rehearsing in the theatre all day on Feb. 22 and then plan to attend the Martha Graham Dance Company concert that evening.

The dancers are both excited and nervous for their upcoming performance in NYC.

“I feel like it isn’t going to hit me — how huge and rare this opportunity is — until I arrive at the Joyce,” Hawk said, who has been performing with the dancers since her first semester at F&M after dancing her whole life. “I already realize that this is a huge deal, but I know that something about the city atmosphere, being on the stage and under the lights, will trigger a much more emotional response in me. This will be an event I will never forget!”

Hawk also plans on possibly pursuing a dance major at F&M.

Even the more senior members of the company are nervous before the upcoming dance.

“When I think about performing in NYC I have a mix of emotions,” said Pignatelli, a senior member of the F&M Dance Company, who has been dancing since she was two years old and dancing with F&M since she was a first-year.

“I am so incredibly excited yet anxious and nervous at the same time. Performing at the Joyce is a completely different level than anything I have done in my entire life.”

The dancers were very excited to hear they would receive the opportunity to perform in NYC.

“When I found out we were going to NYC I was ecstatic,” Pignatelli said. “It is an amazing opportunity to be able to dance in such a renowned place. I cannot wait to get there.”

Hawk explained that this is a great opportunity for her, especially as a freshman.

“For me, it was a sign that I chose the right college,” Hawk said. “Having the opportunity to dance in NYC is something that comes once in a lifetime, and to have it come in the first semester of my freshman year is a surreal honor.”

The girls also explained that the cast of “Celebration” is very close.

“The dancers have been so encouraging and friendly towards me,” Hawk said. “When we started working on the piece, I had no experience in this genre of dance at all, coming from a background of mainly ballet. The girls in my cast, as well as Jen, have brought out such a drive in me, which has translated to a noticed improvement.”

Pignatelli added that it is through the long hours of hard work that the company has been able to come even closer
together.

“It has been amazing working with the 11 other girls in the cast of Celebration,” Pignatelli said.

“We have all gotten so close through the long hours we have put in. We are all so committed to making this performance the best we can. Conley has also been an amazing director throughout this process and even though she is not dancing with us, she is an integral part of our team. Without her passion and dedication we would not be where we are today.

She has been so supportive, and I know all of us want to give a little back to her through this performance.”

Pignatelli mentioned the F&M Dance Company has made great progress over the course of this year, something that has really impressed her.

“My favorite part of this whole experience has been seeing the progress we have made from September until now,” Pignatelli said. “We started by Jennifer giving us a crash course in Graham technique and breaking down each individual movement. From there we began to learn the piece in sections, and it was extremely difficult to even get through one section without losing stamina. Now, seeing all of us being able to get through the entire piece, although still out of breath, is an amazing accomplishment, and we are all so proud.”

Hawk said her favorite part of the whole experience has been learning the history of the piece.

“My favorite part has been becoming a part of the Martha Graham history,” Hawk said. “I love studying history; so to be involved in a work choreographed by such a significant and renowned artist is meaningful. By dancing in ‘Celebration,’ I am carrying on her legacy, as well as the legacy of all the dancers in her company.”
Hawk also explained that this piece involved a lot of firsts.

“This piece has marked many firsts for me: dancing barefoot, with my hair down instead of in a bun, in a heavy costume made out of wool — but all of these firsts are crucial to my transition to F&M, and I wouldn’t change anything,” Hawk said.
Conley explained how proud she is of her dancers.

“My colleagues Lynn Brooks, Pam Vail, and I are so proud of our dancers and thrilled that they are going to represent our dance department and greater F&M performing arts community in New York City!” Conley said.

Questions? Email Shira at skipnees@fandm.edu.

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