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Dance Gala brings "powerful" show

BY MADDIE CLOUGH | OCTOBER 16, 2014 5:00 AM

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Rejection. Dark humor. Insecurity. Tradition. Heartbreak. Frustration with your annoying boss. For University of Iowa Dance Gala performers and choreographers, portraying these themes takes more than a perfect pirouette.

“Dance doesn’t have to be pretty to be powerful,” said dance Associate Professor George de la Peña, the Dance Department head. “Some [dances] are really visceral and very raw and emotionally revealing, showing the more vulnerable aspects of being human.”

Since 1981, Dance Gala has showcased the talent of the UI Dance Department faculty and students — both majors and non-majors — as well as choreography from world-renowned choreographers.

This year’s performance, which will open tonight, is the first and largest production put on by the Dance Department during the academic year, and it features five dance pieces. It will take place in North Hall’s Space/Place  throughout this weekend and next. 

Charlotte Adams, an associate professor of dance and one of the choreographers for the show, said that when they come up with ideas, choreographers take every aspect of the production into account.

“The thing that I love about Dance Gala is that it’s a fully produced concert,” she said. “We have costumers that work with us, and we bring in a lighting designer from out of town whose specialty is doing lighting for dance.”

De la Peña said the light and video designers act as “painters,” projecting images throughout the theater to set a scene. Music, he said, is also an important component.

“The music is fabulous and super eclectic,” he said. “There is lots of variety from pop music to electronic synthesized music, newly composed music, soundscape, to people actually speaking. The sound is going to be very diverse.”

But the biggest tool in communicating each piece's "rich themes," De La Peña said, is in the nuanced body language of the dancers.

“You won’t see anything cliché,” de la Peña said. “… We explore deeper meanings of movement and the human condition. My hope is that the audience will be provoked to discuss what they experienced at length and that they leave with memorable movement images and ideas.”

Melanie Swihart, a second-year UI graduate student, dance instructor, and Gala performer, said she wants everyone who attends to take something personal away from the show.

“I don’t ever want to tell people what they should feel or how they should experience something,” she said. “But it’d be great just for people to experience something new — to leave thinking ‘that was different’ or just to feel something. Whether that is in a positive light or negative. If they felt something — if it created something in them or made them think of a memory, then I think as performers and choreographers that we all did our job.”

Each year, Dance Gala gets revamped with fresh choreography from special guest artists. This year it features work by Nicholas Leichter and Esther Baker-Tarpaga. Leichter has performed in more than 50 cities and 12 countries. Baker-Tarpaga, a Grant Wood Art Fellow 2013-14, partnered with the department last year and has returned to choreograph for Gala.

The show includes “Five Rejections and a Funeral,” by Adams, “When Colour Aligns,” by Leichter, “Riding Mad Horses,” by Jennifer Kayle, “De Antônio, de Brincante e Vira mundo,” by Duarte, and “hands up DIS/UNITY — make this not us against them,” by Baker-Tarpaga.

The piece “Five Rejections and a Funeral,”  takes a deep look into the struggles of being an employee in the world today. It uses humor to represent the concepts of rejection and adversity. 

Dance Professor Armando Duarte, who is from Brazil and is the production supervisor, choreographed the movement for “De Antônio, de Brincante e Vira mundo.” The piece is based on the Frevo, a type of music and dance culture popular in Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil.

“[Being a part of Dance Gala] has been wonderful,” Duarte said. “It’s become a tradition of the arts in Iowa City and in the Midwest, and it changes every year.”

“Hands up DIS/UNITY — make this not us against them” promises to be the most risqué of the performances, bearing the disclaimer “contains adult content and partial nudity.” Baker-Tarpaga also requested the set and scenery to be changed during intermission — a new feature for Gala — so audience members will be able to walk around and view different aspects of the work.

Duarte said it excites him to continue to see such an impressive turnout for Dance Gala.

“We’re still building an audience with dance,” he said. “Now, we compete with technology — why would people leave home to see a live performance of something? Everything’s within the click of a button, and information is passed by so fast. So it’s a privilege when people come to enjoy a live experience.”

The journey to success for Dance Gala did not come without setbacks. The 2008 flood destroyed Hancher, in which the Dance Department performances, including Gala, had been produced. Dance Gala has taken place in Space/Place for the last five years.

Adams said there are pros and cons in having to change locations.

“[Hancher] was such an exciting space to be in — this formal and beautiful theater,” she said. “The interesting thing about that is that in Hancher, we could only perform two nights. Even though it was on this big and beautiful stage, and a lot more people were there each night, now those audiences are spread over eight nights. The dancers get to perform more, so there’s good and bad. We’ll move back to Hancher in 2016, and I think we’re one of the first departments or performances that’ll be taking place there when it reopens.”

Duarte said the North Hall venue adds a time crunch as well.

“The challenge is collaborating with the production team,” he said. “Because of circumstances with dates and other productions, [Gala] has been moved a month earlier. That presents a lot of challenge. You have to be sharp, and you have to deliver work that keeps up with the quality of Dance Gala.”

Gala performers said they are just as excited about opening night as the faculty. A smile on her face, Swihart said she is excited by the struggles of the many rehearsals and hard work necessary to be a part of the show.

“It’s always nice to hear the audience’s reaction and what they left with, although that’s not a determining factor on how I necessarily feel about the work,” she said. “There’s this sense of excitement. It’s like a challenge each night — not to perform better but to make it new again.”


Dance Gala
When: 8 p.m. today-Saturday and Oct. 23-25, 2 p.m. Oct. 19
Where: Space/Place
Admission: $10-$20, $5 for students with IDs


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