The Ailey/Fordham BFA Senior Choreography Concert: A Backstage Glance

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By Fana Tesfagiorgis
Staff Writer
Published: November 13, 2008

Every October, The Ailey School holds a concert showcasing the choreography of its eldest and longest nurtured dancers, the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) seniors. The BFA Senior Choreography Concert took place at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre on Oct. 30, and the house was nearly full of family, faculty, peers and other appreciated audience members. Each of the participating seniors showcased a piece that was at least five minutes long, using any music, props, dancers and artistic concepts they pleased. The audience’s applause gave a confident approval of the nine new works, each with its own distinct voice, but I wondered if they really understood what strenuous physical, intellectual, emotional and even spiritual work went into the process of each piece’s creation. I spoke with four senior BFA dancers—Sarah Daley, Amy McClendon, Jasmine Poole and Lara Wilson—to  get an idea about what their journeys were like.

The sophomore and junior BFA dancer’s 22-credit schedule includes three hours of dance composition classes per week under the direction of either Kazuko Hirabayashi or JoAnna Mendl-Shaw. Both instructors are widely known in the dance world, teaching composition classes at renowned institutions like The Juilliard School while pushing choreographic boundaries with their own dance companies, Kazuko Hirabayashi Dance Theatre and The Equus Projects.

By the time BFA dancers reach their senior year, they have experienced four semesters of studying how to create movement.

Poole recalled, “[Hirabayashi] taught us how to take a phrase and vary and manipulate it into many phrases, which helped a lot.” They study how to organize or structure movements as well.

McClendon said, “[Mendl-Shaw] taught me the beauty of landscape and framing the stage; as well as how to utilize all dimensions of the stage, all of which were implemented in my final product.”

The dancers are given instruction on how to make various artistic decisions in their compositions.

Daley recalled, “We were encouraged to play around, throw preconceptions out the window and be honest with whatever we created.” In dance technique classes, we work on exercises and combinations that develop our technique and train our bodies. In rehearsals, we incorporate our personal style on top of our technical work to stride toward the choreographer’s vision and our interpretation of that vision. When we develop choreography, however, we are the ones who speak through our bodies and minds to express something that is unique to ourselves—it is our own voice that inspires, creates and embodies the dance. It’s an opportunity to make silent and personal statements before a public yet intimate audience.

It is valuable to look at how the different choreographers were inspired. Some, like Daley, didn’t have concrete ideas of what their pieces would be about and “really just thought about the movement and my dancers and the space.” Others drew inspiration from a number of different sources.

Wilson explored the lives of three aunts, asking questions “about their experiences as young women, and they all ended up talking about relationships they were in and the death of their mother.”

McClendon sought to express “how God’s grace is best shown and implemented through His people and how an understanding of His grace will show just how beautiful and loving God is.” Poole dedicated her piece to her “beloved late brother,” Alex Jr. “I had in mind that he was speaking to me through my body,” she said.

After two years of compositional preparation and finding the motive (or lack thereof) for their new works, the seniors began the task of generating the ideas in their heads into their own choreography.

For some, like Wilson, “The movement did seem to come naturally most of the time.”

McClendon similarly stated, “It wasn’t hard coming up with movement when I actually sat down to think about what I wanted to get across.”

The process was not as natural for others. Poole said, “I’m not that into choreography. It’s not something I want to professionally pursue, so coming up with interesting movement and phrases was hard for me.” The process, whether easy or not, offers numerous valuable lessons to young choreographers that they may not learn without such an experience.

Daley admitted, “I really didn’t think about pursuing choreography much after comp but this process was so interesting, albeit stressful, that I might reconsider.”

The stresses Daley speaks of are common to almost all of the seniors in the rehearsal process. They worked with dancers that they knew from dance classes or previous repertory performances. A major problem that arises when working with a large cast is finding the time to hold rehearsals. Although Ailey and Fordham acknowledge the Senior Choreography Concert with high regard, neither seniors nor their dancers are allowed to miss any other requirements from Ailey or Fordham to attend rehearsals.

Poole explained, “Because everyone’s schedule was so different, the only times everyone was available were at night, which was bad for me being a commuter. [I didn’t get] home until 11 or 11:30 p.m.”

Not only was finding time an issue, but reserving studio space to rehearse was a challenge, too.

McClendon recalled, “with Fall Fest, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and other Ailey School events, lines for [requesting] studio space wrapped around the corner.” It was literally a race every Friday for these young choreographers to reserve time and space to hold rehearsals. Eventually, the seniors were able to work with the Ailey faculty to gain studio priority.

In spite of all of the strains, the seniors were rewarded not only with applause, but also with new understandings about themselves as choreographers. Poole “loved the spontaneity of the final product.”

Daley, whose piece offered a lot of input from the dancers individually, said, “Really beautiful things would happen sort of by chance. The last time they performed it was the most surprising but best of all. Watching them from the wings was incredibly moving.”

Wilson, who admired watching the entire show from the audience, noted, “we [the seniors] are all very different, and each of our individual personalities shined through into our piece. I probably could have watched it without a program and guessed who made each dance. I think that’s awesome.”