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Lauded Choreographers Lead Students Through Danceworks 2016

Against a backdrop of Gregorian chants and a solo saxophone, Northwestern dance students work hard to get every movement of Tony Award winner Garth Fagan’s choreography just right.

“I thought [rehearsal] would be nerve-wracking, but it wasn’t,” says Thomas Boyer, a freshman performer in Fagan’s piece Two Pieces of One: Green. “It was a lot of hard work, but I personally felt proud after gaining approval, even if it was just for a small, simple movement that had to be repeated many times.” 

Fagan, best known for his groundbreaking work on The Lion King, is one of five choreographers shaping Danceworks 2016, the annual showcase for the School of Communication’s dance program. Fagan’s work is being assisted by one of his trusted dancers, Natalie Rogers-Cropper, herself a member of Garth Fagan Dance and one of the original cast members of Two Pieces of One: Green. The adagio, or second section, was dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Rogers-Cropper worked with Boyer and other students recently at three-hour-a-day rehearsals in preparation for opening night, February 26.

“It’s been wonderful working with the students,” says Rogers-Cropper, who along with Erin Barnett, a professor of dance at Northwestern and a former member of Garth Fagan Dance, prepare to get the students ready. “They’re very smart and very open and no one is feeling sorry for themselves. They want to learn and are very hard working.”

Fagan himself will arrive to direct students during tech week. Rogers-Cropper, winner of a prestigious Bessie award (what many consider to be the Tony of dance), has worked closely with Fagan for years. She says that Two Pieces of One: Green is one of Fagan’s favorite works.

“This was done after The Lion King, when he needed a bare space and simple costumes and no drama,” she says. “He wanted abstract impressionism, and here we have movement that is pure movement. It’s not about representing a lion prince or some other character. It’s all very human and poignant at times.”

The music, an interesting mix of jazz and chants, has no distinct beat, which Rogers-Cropper says will challenge students even more. “There’s no count,” she says. “No beat to follow, so they now have to go with phrasing and cues. It’s very hard, but they’ve learned it and I’m very proud of them.”

Fagan’s choreography is only one of many impressive works to be featured in Danceworks 2016, says Joel Valentin-Martinez, head of Northwestern’s dance program and the artistic director for the show. Other guest choreographers include 2015 Guggenheim Fellow Rosy Simas, Hedwig Dances Artistic Associate Maray Gutiérrez, Northwestern Dance faculty member Jeff Hancock, and Valentin-Martinez.

“I just really believe having students engage with such well-renowned choreographers in the field allows the students to learn from a different point of view, and also get a taste of what the professional world currently expects from a dance performer,” Valentin-Martinez says. “We’re really trying to show them a more rigorous, more sophisticated approach to the creation of dance.”

He adds that he enjoyed working with the choreographers, including Rogers-Cropper, who was his former dance partner.

“She’s like a big sister to me professionally,” he says. “I learned so much from her.”

Valentin-Martinez says he’s excited for audiences to see the other pieces in the showcase as well.

Simas choreographs Within Our Skin, which examines what we hold, reveal, and perceive through our skin.

Chicago-based Gutiérrez will direct students on performing a piece about dreams as reality. “The idea is we’re in a dream,” he says. “We think we’re living it. We think it’s real. The dancers will be working with actual pillows on stage, a metaphor for the idea of being asleep or awake. How she uses them… It’s quite a treat.”

Michelle Skiba, a student dancer, says those who come to see Danceworks 2016 will be wowed.

“Danceworks allows the dancers to discover the movement, play with it, and extend its limits because we have a few months to prepare for the final performances,” Skiba says. “That, I think, allows the dancers to delve deeper into the work and provide true art to its audiences…. Danceworks presents some of the best dance at Northwestern and allows us to invite amazing guest choreographers to create their own work.”

“So, to the audiences coming to see Danceworks,” Skiba continues, “be prepared because you’ll be getting a show!

For more information or to buy tickets, see www.communication.northwestern.edu/wirtz/danceworks_2016.