Glancing Back, Dancing Forward

The University of Michigan Bicentennial celebration spans the full calendar year of 2017, and the Department of Dance will be one of the first on campus to usher in the festivities. The annual Power Center dance concerts, slated for February 2-5, will celebrate the long and distinguished presence of dance on campus and feature choreography by faculty and alumni. The concerts will also continue the Department’s tradition of mounting seminal dance works by world-renowned guest choreographers.

Titled Glancing Back, Dancing Forward, the concerts will include a fast-paced collage of dance works both old and new, choreographed by dance faculty including Melissa Beck, Amy Chavasse, Bill DeYoung, Peter Sparling, Sandra Torijano, and Robin Wilson. The uninterrupted, back-to-back juxtaposition of the faculty works will highlight the tremendous variety of dance-making that has gone on at the University and the ways it continues to evolve.

Part of that evolution is screendance, the seamless melding of film and dance, which has become a primary focus of Peter Sparling’s work. In honor of the Bicentennial, Sparling has created 200@200, a screendance that he describes as “a legacy in motion that crosses borders of age, race, geography, genres, and generations of U-M dancers.

“I imagined a means of celebrating our Dance Department’s lively presence on campus by casting a wide net to include as many present and past students and faculty as possible,” said Sparling, who is both the Rudolf Arnheim Distinguished University Professor of Dance and the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Dance. He thought the easiest way to achieve his goal was to use the most accessible current technology: cellphones. “Why not a quick improvised 10-second ‘movement signature’ that could be shot on an iPhone and sent to me via email? My goal was to collect 200 of these miniature self-portraits in motion and compose a video.”

By August, Sparling had received videos from 110 dancers to include in the video. When dance students collaborated with the Michigan Marching Band at halftime during the Wisconsin game in October, fans got a chance to watch it on the Michigan Stadium Jumbotron. The effect was kaleidoscopic and mesmerizing, a tribute to both Michigan’s 200th birthday and to the vast numbers of dancers that have studied and taught at U-M. Sparling hopes to collect another 90 videos to add to the film before the February concerts.

On the second half of those concerts, the tradition of featuring works by giants of the dance world will continue with excerpts from the 1976 piece Quarry, by the much-heralded performance artist Meredith Monk. She joins an impressive list of legendary dance artists whose work has been performed by U-M dancers in recent years, including Paul Taylor, Lucinda Childs, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, and Richard Alston.

Monk is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, two Guggenheim fellowships, three Obie awards, and two Bessie awards (dance) for Sustained Creative Achievement. She is a composer, singer, director/choreographer, and creator of new opera, music-theatre works, films, and installations. Recognized as one of the most influential multidisciplinary artists of our time, Monk and her vocal ensemble will perform as part of the UMS Renegade Series on January 20.

“Meredith Monk was important for launching a whole genre of multidisciplinary work at a very experimental and revolutionary time in the dance world of the 1960s and ’70s,” said Jessica Fogel, chair of the department. “She’s a very important artist for our students to experience, and her work fits beautifully with our theme of ‘glancing back’ while still remaining timely for the current moment. Monk herself is finding it a particularly relevant work now.”

Premiered in 1976 and set in the context of WWII, Quarry explores the horrors of war and the abuses of power from a child’s perspective. Monk was on campus in October auditioning a cast of 33 performers for the work, and will return in January to rehearse with the cast. Current and former company members will also work with the students, providing movement and vocal coaching.

Taking up the mantle of “dancing forward” in these concerts are alumni Xan Burley and Alex Springer, both 2007 graduates, who co-create in NYC under the moniker “the Median Movement.” Following a one-week residency in November, the duo will make their Power Center debut with a work choreographed for a large ensemble. Like much of their work, the piece will be created in collaboration with the performers and will be symbolic of that community’s voice and story.

Audience members will be greeted at the concerts by a lobby installation of photos and live dance created by Jessica Fogel. The installation will feature an exhibit of historical and contemporary images of the history of dance at U-M, and performances by dance majors that bring the photographs to life. The installation provides fascinating views of the evolution of the Department and the 100+-year history of curricular dance activities at the University.


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.