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M.F.A. choreography student presents thesis performance

BY SAMANTHA GENTRY | APRIL 19, 2012 6:30 AM

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A disco ball spins lightly in the center of the gymnasium as females in floor-length formal dresses and males in tuxedos dance among tables scattered around the high-school prom scene.

But this isn't the average prom. Among the guests are performers from the UI Dance Department.
Chris Masters wanted to create a theatrical dance piece that was unlike his usual style when he thought of prom night concept for his M.F.A. choreography thesis piece.

The idea of this right of passage was a jumping-off point to examine the construction of identity, the deeper meaning behind the piece.

"We are using prom as an entrance into discussion or examination of these ideas," Masters said. "I think a lot of the piece centers on the American coming-of-age story and is exploring a lot of those same points of discussion just in a different way."

Masters will present his final piece for the UI, The American Dream, at 8 p.m. today and Friday in the Robert A. Lee Center, 220 S. Gilbert St. Admission is free for UI students; there is a suggested $5 donation for the general public.

Masters has created eight pieces for the UI during his two years in the program. But the thesis is different from the rest.

For his final production, the 30-year-old choreographer was interested in focusing on a concrete concept, as simple as high-school prom, rather than more abstract forms of expression that he had employed in the past.

"I think there is something about making work about people that provides entry for an audience, whether they are sophisticated dance viewers or this is their first show ever," Masters said. "I knew from moment one that it would be a people-derived work."

However, that was about all Masters first knew about his piece. A lot of his inspiration came from the a collaborative experience with his dancers.

Before he began choreographing, he assigned compositional assignments to the cast of 22 dancers. They wrote about past experiences with gender, sex, prom, and high school.

A lot of the movements and dialogue used during the piece were drawn from those experiences, and because of that, Masters sees himself as more than a choreographer — he is also a director of the piece.

"Instead of the work being purely about a physical experience, there is a logic to the way that people behave inside the work based on the characters we co-constructed," he said. "It's important to me that we don't try to divorce the self."

UI senior Steven Gray is labeled as the jock in the piece who dates the girl who wins prom queen.

"[My character] is kind of an asshole for the sake of insecurity purposes," Gray said. "He's curious about his sexuality, and he doesn't know what he wants."

The dance and vocal performance major said that gender role is always a big part of pieces choreographed by Masters, but this work explores it a little deeper.

"He wants to place two people of the same sex in a physical and touchy duet, and it's really refreshing to see that it isn't just a woman being lifted [in certain sequences]," Gray said. "Personalities emerge so strongly in this piece."

UI senior Jennifer Gram plays a character she likes to describe as "Miss Popular."

Her character "rules the school" and assumes that she is going to win prom queen, but unfortunately, when things don't go her way, her whole world turns upside down.

Immersing herself into the character has been an interesting yet challenging experience for her.

"[Masters] said that before we open our mouths [during the performance], we have to think, breathe, and respond in our character," Gram said. "Everything is embodying who this person is, like a whole body experience."

Not only does the cast members have to play these different characters, they also have the additional challenge of interacting with the audience.

"I think it will be challenging for my dancers, but with the highest optimism, they will rise to the challenge," Masters said. "The cast members are superb, and I'm excited to see how they are going to live in these moments. There is a lot of room for disaster, and that is exciting to me."

UI senior Justin Farris said he has played off audiences before, but there has never been an element of the unknown — such as interacting directly with them — and he finds that interesting.

"I think it is something that we are all apprehensive about but excited to experience," he said. "It will enrich the performance that we are giving and be really rewarding."

In contrast, dancer Courtney Paulsen said she has never interacted with an audience this much before in a piece.

"[Masters] calls it 'dancer's common sense' when you have to dance in the moment, and it's really exciting for us because I feel like it stretches us as dancers," she said. "It is a challenge for everyone, but it's really given us a the chance to hone in on how our character is and what we should be doing in the moment."

Another element that will be challenging for the dancers is adjusting to the costumes.

Because the dancers will be barefoot during the performance and dressed in formal gowns, many of the dresses required alterations so they wouldn't slip during the show.

"There are times where it is difficult to move around in the dresses," Paulsen said. "I have to make sure I hike the skirt up a little bit to make sure I can kick my leg high enough, because my dress is so long."

Despite these obstacles, Masters feels confident with his dancers, and he said all they need is an audience so the piece can stay fresh.

The soon-to-be graduate is thrilled to showcase this performance as a send-off from the university.

"I'm thrilled this is how I'm ending my time at the university with these dancers and this project," Masters said. "I don't feel like I took the easy way out or played anything safe. It's nice to go out with a bang."


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