Western dance professor Nolan Dennett sits in his chair, jotting hasty notes as his students dance through a piece he choreographed.
Two couples push and pull their partners around the floor – sometimes in unison, other times in call-and-response.
Exchanging only glances, the two couples never meet.
The piece, “French,” is one of three the Western dance troupe will be taking to The American College Dance Festival’s Northwest Conference in Laramie, Wyoming.
This year will be the first time Western has will perform at ACDF in five years since Dennett stepped down as the program director.
“[French is] impressionistic, so you can get a lot different implied meanings from it. It is certainly about two couples. One couple is in love and the other, not so much,” Dennett said.
The dancers finish the run-through, and Dennett gets to work addressing his notes to the couples.
There is a rawness to the rehearsal. Athletic clothes and the brightly lit, mirrored studio of the Commissary Building are a far cry from the stage lights and costumes the audience sees.
The students will be rehearsing around 30 hours a week from now until March 9, endlessly fine tuning every movement.
Watching the performance, Dennett describes his vision for the final product and performance to come. He pointed out where the lights will be, the affect they will create and how they will help tell the story.
The troupe will be attending the festival March 9 to 12 and will be returning March 14.
Marisa Fernandez, Nolan Hoppe-Leonard, Cecelia Hanford, Derek Loerzel, Keenan Komoto and Elli Madsen make up the dancers for “French.” Tara Reiter, Cara Congelli, Evyn Bartlett and Nora Lang are the other students performing or participating at the festival.
The festival will feature dance troupes from around the Northwest region.
Each troupe attending the festival may perform up to three dance pieces – one created by a faculty member, another created by a student or students and a third from a guest artist which won’t be judged for an official score.
Between the two adjudicated pieces, the judges will not know which is student-made or faculty-made. This helps to remediate judicial bias and allow for the possibility of the student piece to score higher than the faculty one.
The best performances of the festival will have a chance to perform at the showcase Gala Concert at the end of the festival on Saturday, March 12, at 7:30 p.m. in the Arts and Science Auditorium at the University of Wyoming.
Those selected to move on will then have the opportunity to perform at the Kennedy Center in the District of Columbia.
“It is technically a competition, but I don’t really think of it that way. It is more just another performance. Like a good, fun, huge performance,” Komoto said. “Not like ‘I want to beat the other team.’”
The festival will have numerous dance classes for students around the region to attend.
“I am excited to take dance classes at the same festival, meeting other dancers and professors and networking,” Fernandez said. “I think that would be a good addition to the whole performance and competition feel.”
The other two pieces Western will be performing in Wyoming are “Portraits,” the student-made piece, and “The Day I Bathed My Mother” by dance professor Pam Kuntz.
“Portraits” was originally an assignment in a choreography class. The assignment was to study a character and create movements to portray the character.
The three characters portrayed are Marilyn Monroe, Marnie from the Alfred Hitchcock film and Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer from the movie “Monster,” performed by Madsen, Hanford and Reiter.
“The Day I Bathed My Mother” is the guest-artist piece and will not be judged for the Gala Performance.
It features two performers, Hanford and Congelli, as a mother and daughter.
“We rehearsed it in a week and we haven’t worked on it since. Then we will perform it in a week and then take it to [Wyoming],” Hanford said.
The short rehearsal time is because the piece is a recreation from another performance with Congelli, but this time with Hanford portraying the mother.
“If you recreate a piece, it really doesn’t take that long. When Nolan recreates a piece, he re-choreographs it. Pam didn’t re-choreograph it, we just re-staged it,” Handford said.
In learning “The Day I Bathed My Mother,” Kuntz watched a prior performance of the piece then explained it to Hanford what to do without showing her the performance.
This teaching method allowed Hanford to dance and not be directly inspired by the other performance.
Unlike other performing arts where directors have scripts or sheet music for performers to practice from, these pieces were a cumulative process of adding movements together from the director’s visions or the performer’s own additions.
“They are all puzzles to solve. Slowly the material gets manipulated. Keep that, get rid of that and the material slowly gets developed over time,” Loerzel said.
Some of these puzzles – like in the case of “French” – can take up to almost a year to put together.
“I think all of us are excited to perform. It’s well prepared and there is nothing really to be nervous about,” Loerzel said. “Now we are just sharing it with the other universities who are going to be there.”
With completed pieces and time ticking down, any sort of injury is the main thing many dancers worry about. Many dancers take technique classes as a way to offset rehearsals and combat the possibility of injury.