The Orchesis Modern Dance Company performs biannually. Their spring production, “An Evening of Dance,” is an opportunity for student choreographers, as members of the company, to develop original works that will be performed on stage by fellow company dancers.
Behind each carefully constructed piece lies much preparation and many pointed decisions about music, costumes, patterns and choreography. For many of the students, their involvement with Orchesis marks their first experience choreographing.
Orchesis President Hailey Arindaeng ’18 began choreographing her sophomore year at the College of William and Mary with a cast of five dancers, and then she had six dancers during her junior year. This year, she is choreographing the finale — the piece that closes out the show — with the complete cast of 22 dancers. Arindaeng said she is eager to be working with students from a variety of different dance backgrounds.
“It’s been really exciting to see my personal movement aesthetic grow and develop into my own style,” Arindaeng said. “This year I am working with 22 dancers in finale and working with a group that large is very different from working with just six dancers, but it is really exciting to see the whole company come together. We each come from very different dance backgrounds. So, some of us grew up in a studio that was mainly contemporary and jazz, and others have a very strong ballet background; some people did dance team in high school. And getting to work with 22 dancers who all have really unique strengths and being able to leverage their styles to create a piece that features so many unique styles of dance from each of the dancers is really exciting. [It is exciting] to see that come together with this longer piece.”
Orchesis Vice President Jessica Pitts ’19 is a first-time choreographer this year. Initially, Pitts did not think that she would pursue choreography, but she said that this year, she was particularly inspired by the idea. For Pitts, passion drove her desire to choreograph; she said that without passion for her developed concept, she would not have choreographed.
Pitts said that choreographing does not necessarily come as second nature to her and that her choreographic process has proved to be quite interesting.
“It’s definitely a challenging process, and I wouldn’t say that I am a natural choreographer,” Pitts said. “… I grew up training in ballet, so I had never done this kind of dance before, and I always thought that my movement style would naturally be more balletic, but my piece is very grounded and very non-balletic. So, it’s kind of cool to see how I am growing as a choreographer and what feels good on my body, because it is really not what I expected my style of movement to look like.”
The choreographic process extends beyond merely the allotted weekly rehearsals, as choreographers must devote additional time to think through the workings of movement sequences that they will later teach to their dancers.
“A lot of it is me lying on the floor in the downstairs studio, trying to think about what to do,” Pitts said. “I have also gotten better at it in the past few months that I have been choreographing it, but usually I will think of a formation first, or a pattern that I want, and I’ll say, ‘Okay we have eight counts to get into this line, and then four counts of eight of some sort of combination in a canon,’ and I will go through and map out the piece in terms of just where I want the bodies to be. Then, I will usually go back and fill in the movements and actually choreograph combinations. But it takes me so long to actually do that part because it’s hard to come up with something that you are happy with. It’s one thing to do it on yourself, but [it is different coming] up with things that you know will look good on your dancers, because you, yourself, are not the one who will be doing them.”
The casts of each piece also determine the scope of choreography. Arindaeng said that it is crucial for the choreographer to remember for whom they are choreographing, as this may sway the original direction of the choreographer’s vision. The choreographer must also prioritize the dancers’ comfort.
“Each choreographer comes into a project with a vision, but it is so important to remember that your vision is just as important as how comfortable your dancers feel on stage,” Arindaeng said. “So, as much as I’d love my vision to come across as the first time I thought about it, it’s equally as important to me that my dancers feel really confident on stage. Because, as a dancer myself, I know how empowering that can be to go on stage and just love performing the movement… [my dancers and I] have such a good way of communicating, and I really want to make sure that they feel comfortable with the movement too.”
Arindaeng said that communication and patience are both part of the progression of movement.
“If I come into rehearsal and a movement phrase isn’t translated as I initially intended it to, we work through it together,” Arindaeng said. “We communicate about how we can make this work for each of our individual, unique and different bodies. Sometimes you try something out and it doesn’t work, and you come back next week, and you come up with a new solution. It is important to be patient; I think that your dancers are your clay, and it is continually evolving. You have to remember that it is really exciting to see your vision come to life and to allow it to grow over time and to give your dancers a chance to learn and adapt to your movement style; they are learning something new, too.”
Social Chair Carrie Byrne ’20 and Head Costume Officer Antonella Nicholas ’20 are co-choreographers. They, like other choreographers, began their process during the summer months of 2017. Byrne and Nicholas picked their music selections and began developing ideas for costumes over the summer. They entered into this academic year having general themes established for their piece, and their choreographic process began in the fall.
Choreographic development for Byrne and Nicholas is very much a collaborative process, not only between the two of them, but also between them and their cast of dancers.
“We do it all together pretty much,” Nicholas said. “If we think of choreography separately, we definitely bring it in and say, ‘Do you like this?’ It comes through us and then to [our dancers]. Usually it takes quite a bit of time to come up with movement that is different. We want to make sure it has variety and then also that the dancers can do it; we think about what looks good on them.”
The strength and versatility of the dancers in their piece shape how Byrne and Nicholas end up constructing their dance.
“We were really able to come up with movements that were both very original to our style of choreography, but then also could highlight [the dancers’] strengths because they have so many,” Byrne said. “We were very lucky in that aspect, where we got that group of dancers, especially because all but one are choreographers themselves. … We give them a movement, but then they make it their own, which I think is very important to how our piece turned out.”
Additionally, composition and growth of movement phrases within the pieces is never finished. The process is ongoing and constantly evolving.
“There are always parts that we are tweaking,” Byrne said. “What we come up with in our meetings to choreograph is never what ends up on them, finally. There is a lot of tweaking that goes on.”
Orchesis’ spring production places such emphasis on the students, especially since the pieces are all student-choreographed and performed. Arindaeng said that she believes that it is the distinct student perspective that makes “An Evening of Dance” so unique.
“We have not only the faculty perspective; we also have the student perspective,” Arindaeng said. “What is so exciting about our spring show … is that we get to choreograph pieces that we know will speak to the student community. For example, we have had pieces about undocumented immigrants, the civil rights movement, youth protests, and ranging from that to things such as the struggle to seek perfection in your young adult life. Those themes and ideas all came from students because we know that on this campus, those are topics that we are really passionate about.”
The dancers in Orchesis are students of all interests and academic majors, brought together by the commonality of a love for dance. Arindaeng said that because of this diverse background, Orchesis is able to communicate a broad range of messages to its student audience and ultimately spark conversation around campus.
“Each of us comes from such a different background — some of us are biology majors, finance majors, English majors, and because we have that diverse background, we are representing a lot of student voices,” Arindaeng said. “The themes that we are portraying on stage — because part of modern dance is conveying a message that you couldn’t say through words — are speaking to a lot of students who can relate to those messages, which I think is very exciting. Some of my friends will come to the shows who aren’t dancers, but we will have really exciting conversations afterwards about the inspiration for each piece. … Even someone who has never seen dance before can get something out of the show that is valuable or related to some sort of message. It’s thought provoking and encourages them to think about a topic in a new way as far as conversations on campus.”