Dance students in "The Village," freshman year
Tara Sheena, Sadie Yarrington, Daniel GwirtzmanAllegra Romita, Tara Sheena, Sadie Yarrington, Logan McClendon, Francesca Nieves, Emily Wanserski, Derek CrescentiEmily Wanserski, Allegra Romita, Logan McClendon, Francesca Nieves, Derek Crescenti

Where There's a Will
Dance Seniors Produce Their Own New York Showcase

by Betsy Goolian


On a Friday and Saturday evening in May, an enthusiastic crowd of dance alumni, faculty, and friends jostled their way into the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City. The occasion? The first ever U-M Senior Dance Showcase.


“The Friday night show was practically sold out,” says Francesca Nieves, one of the graduating seniors. “On Saturday night we hardly had room for everyone—some were even standing.”


Senior showcases are nothing new, but this one had its own distinctive twist. The seven members of the Department of Dance graduating class of 2011 conceived of and produced the entire event on their own.


The idea began to take shape their freshman year. Each incoming class forms its own touring company and this class was no exception. It was 2008 and the students had just finished a performance in Saginaw, one of the last stops on a tour. They were feeling their oats. Someone shouted out, “Next stop, New York!”


Well, why not? “We laughed about it,” says Nieves, “but during sophomore year, when we started having monthly class meetings, the idea began to gel. We knew the Department of Musical Theatre had its own showcase every year. We decided we should do the same thing.”


Those seven seniors are Nieves, Derek Crescenti, Logan McClendon, Allegra Romita, Tara Sheena, Emily Wanserski, and Sadie Yarrington.


“You absolutely have to be united as a class,” says Wanserski, who just began a job as managing director for Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre in California. “The amount of work that goes into a project like this is hard to measure, but communication is key. The seven of us were constantly keeping each other informed about the project, what we had accomplished and how we were handling everything.”


Once they had made up their minds to turn that dream into a reality, they got down to business. They put together a preliminary budget and a Power Point presentation for the dance faculty. It was clear these students weren’t just on a lark. Their professors gave them the green light, but with one caveat.


“The faculty said, we’re so happy you guys are doing this, it’s great—but you’re on your own,” says Nieves. “And we were fine with that. We knew if there were too many cooks in the kitchen, or even just one head chef, it wasn’t going to be what we wanted it to be.”


They did set up an advisory board:  Angela Kane, dance department chair; dance faculty Peter Sparling and Christian Matjias; alumni Daniel Gwirtzman (BDA ’92) and Carolyn Dorfman (BFA ’77); and lighting designer and faculty member Mary Cole, who also came to New York with the group for the week leading up to the showcase. But for the most part, the advisory board’s role was just that—advisory.


“It was more like we had this group of people who were there for us if we needed them,” Nieves says. “So any time we had a question, we would go to them. Mostly we just kept them informed about what we were doing.”


Once they had departmental approval, they made an appointment to see the School’s dean, Christopher Kendall. They came to that appointment armed with much more detailed and comprehensive budgets, offering two possible scenarios, one for $10,000, a second for $12,000. The dean was duly impressed. He approved the plan. Both the Department and School were able to commit funds toward the effort.


The students spent sophomore and junior years organizing the event and raising additional funds from family, friends, projected ticket sales, and other sources. Some donations were gifts-in-kind:  a local photographer took their publicity shots; Carolyn Dorfman paid for a New York reception; a family friend donated the wine; Daniel Gwirtzman, alumnus and artist-in-residence their freshman year, donated his artistic services.


As part of their graduation requirements, dance students must create a senior thesis—a solo and a group work they choreograph themselves. The class of 2011 managed to combine that work with the New York showcase without compromising the pedagogical intent. “One of the things we stressed was that the one didn’t have to do with the other,” Nieves says. “We didn’t let the showcase influence how we cast our group pieces.”


During the year leading up to the event, students worked hard on publicity. They designed and printed their own flyers, mailing them out to SMTD dance alumni in the New York area. They sent out personalized invitations to friends and family, giving extras to dance faculty to put the word out to their many colleagues and connections. They created their own Web site and put together a promotional video.


Gwirtzman’s assignment was to create the showcase finale, setting a work on just the seven seniors. “Personality, grit, sophistication and risk taking typify this tight-knit clan,” he says, “and I exploited these qualities in creating Wildfire, a challenging, go-for-broke dance.”


Four of the seniors were able to travel to New York in February, during their spring break, to start work with Gwirtzman who has his own company in the city. While there, they visited dance studios and dropped off promotional postcards. They also volunteered their services for outreach, lectures, and demonstrations at New York high schools and schools for the performing arts, distributing promotional materials at the same time.


In April, the Department of Dance brought Gwirtzman to Ann Arbor, to teach classes but also to continue work with the seniors. The final rehearsals for Wildfire took place in New York in May. They named the showcase tHere: An Evening of Modern Dance. “The show was both about what we learned at the U-M from our professors but also about our trajectory from then to now,” Nieves says.


As the big day approached, the Senior Seven were off to New York for the week leading up to the showcase. Student dancers from the department were brought in toward the end of the week to supplement the group works. Mary Cole was there as faculty advisory, but also doing light design. Recent SMTD theatre graduate Ingrid Olson was enlisted to stage-manage.


While the heart of any senior showcase is to present the talent of a graduating class to industry insiders, this showcase was about so much more. “We wanted it to be inter-disciplinary,” Nieves says. “Most of the music in the show was commissioned from composition students at the School. Another aspect was the community outreach and lecture demonstrations we did in the New York schools.”


“At the same time, we’re all very passionate about the department and so thankful for what the faculty has done for us,” she adds. “We wanted to promote the department beyond the Midwest. I’m from New York and I think what goes on here is pretty amazing, but it’s not as well known there, and I’m sure it’s the same on the west coast.”


“We also wanted to create a footprint for future classes. At the same time, we gained the satisfaction of knowing that we produced a show in New York City, from Ann Arbor, with a $12,000 budget.”


Gwirtzman clearly had a huge impact on this group when they were freshmen just starting out. It went both ways. “They created an indelible impression on me four years ago,” says Daniel Gwirtzman. “Two full capacity crowds cheered the burgeoning professionals at the Baryshnikov Arts Center as they presented this work and their own compositions with clarity of purpose, tremendous vitality, individual charisma, and a well of heartfelt joy. To witness one's students achieve such high marks and to observe their own pride at their accomplishment is the best gift a teacher can receive.”


And what a great way to launch their respective careers. "I cannot put into words how much I learned from this experience,” says Wanserski, “for there were so many layers to the project. On a professional level, I gained hands-on experience with programming, development, alumni relations, and networking. Then there was the artistic layer of learning, which in some ways seemed to be a culmination of my time in Ann Arbor. This project and the people involved truly shaped my four years at Michigan."