University of Montana dance students get a special challenge their junior year: to choreograph a piece of their own design, in the Masquer Theatre.
It’s the theater, though, with its three seating areas that make a “U” around the stage, that can give the budding choreographers the most trouble.
“Have you sat on the side?” Professor Heidi Eggert will ask her students. “Have you turned your dancers this way?
“Because no one should be watching from the side.”
But all nine juniors (and one senior) have made their pieces work in the unique space, in time for the annual “Dance Up Close” performance.
The annual event features 10 pieces ranging in length from five to eight minutes, Eggert said, and is a culmination of work by theater and dance students.
“They’ve already done a certain amount of research and choreographed for the public a certain number of times,” Eggert said. “That means they’re getting more support like costume designers and lighting designers.”
The extra support leads to ideas that student choreographers like Noelle Huser may not have been able to pull off before.
Huser’s piece, which opens “Dance Up Close,” is called “Pigeon Post,” and it takes a satirical look at people’s interactions with technology.
“It serves as a post-apocalyptic warning of isolation in a wasteland of technology, where humanity evolves in cyborg-ian realms,” the press release says of “Pigeon Post.”
It also features a stage design that includes stacks of old televisions, Eggert said, which flicker with static and color throughout the performance.
The only piece not choreographed for a junior project is “Dancing with the Dead,” a collaboration between senior dance major Katie Conrad and English Literature Professor Ashby Kinch.
Kinch and Conrad reinterpret the medieval “Danse Macabre,” which shows humans on their way into the afterlife.
The dance of death is perhaps most well known from Camille Saint-Saëns’ 19th century symphonic piece, or the classic Ingmar Bergman film “The Seventh Seal,” but Kinch and Conrad use poetry in their performance.
“Through their dialogue, they realized they could reenact some of the mythology and history of this,” Eggert said.
A narrator will read poems live on stage, accompanied by individual dancers interpreting the story. At the end of the performance, all the dancers will form a processional off the stage, resembling the famous image of the “Danse Macabre,” with skeletons and humans loping together to the afterlife.
“It doesn’t have to be sadness,” Eggert said of the dance. “There can also be a reverence, something honoring and something celebratory as well.”
“Dancing with the Dead” is just a snippet of a two-hour performance that will be shown in full in conjunction with the Festival of Remembrance Nov. 4 at the Missoula Senior Center.
The 10 pieces in “Dance up Close” have surprising thematic through-lines, Eggert said, even though there were no guidelines for theme or content.
Students have to consider what’s “of burning relevance” to them, Eggert said, and many of the pieces deal with human interaction, whether it’s person-to-person, through technology, or through dealing with death.
“It seems like there’s a theme,” Eggert said. “This really feels as cohesive and powerful as an entire event.”