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Skidmore College

Guts and glory in New York

March 1, 2017

"This is not the type of piece where we could have masked our mistakes, or improvised if we had forgotten something," says Shannon Gunter '17. "Doing this justice was a huge undertaking," adds Noelle Morrow '19. But they and fellow students pulled it off, earning kudos for their performance of Martha Graham's intense, iconic "Steps in the Street" at New York City's Joyce Theater.

The event was part of the Martha Graham Dance Company's fifth annual University Partners Showcase in February. Mary Harney, senior artist-in-residence in Skidmore's Dance Department, calls the Joyce "one of the world's premier venues for modern dance," so it was "a great honor for our students to perform a classic work, by a seminal figure in dance history, on its stage." And having joined the Graham Company's inaugural showcase in 2012, the department "was proud to have been invited back."

Skidmore dancer
Elise Mumford '17 in "Steps in the Street," courtesy
of Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance
(Photo by Jonathan Stricker '17)

Harney and students were already well immersed in "Steps," a segment of Graham's 1936 Chronicle. Skidmore licensed the rights to bring "Steps" to the Dance Theater stage last year, and it was reset for the occasion by the Martha Graham Center's Susan Kikuchi, whose mother, a longtime principal dancer with the Graham Company, had worked alongside Graham to reconstruct it from vintage film and photographs. "Steps," Harney explains, "speaks to the strength and resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It brings us back to the roots of American modern dance, born out of the desire to express man's innermost thoughts and feelings through movement." Under Harney's direction, the 12-person performance was a highlight of the Dance Department's 2016 Winter Concert.

As the Joyce event grew closer, "the excitement mounted exponentially," Harney reports. "With many months of rehearsals and three performances at Skidmore behind them, our dancers were embarking on the last phase of their journey."

Rehearsing "such an emotional and powerful work" reminded Morrow that "slapping on a facial expression on stage is never enough; dancers need to dig inside themselves if they want to tell a story through movement. They need to draw on a feeling from their gut and let it encompass their whole body. It's so challenging to achieve but so rewarding when you accomplish it." Reina Kiefer '17, already looking to a job in psychology research, found it "a sweet but fleeting experience. The Dance Department is family to me, and having the opportunity to perform a piece as powerful as 'Steps' with some of my closest friends was something I'll cherish forever."

Finally on the Joyce stage, Harney says, all the students' "commitment to the work and to the process culminated in a stellar performance, capturing the essence of the dance and delivering its message with true artistry." In Kikuchi's words, they "transformed this 1936 dance to the present and brought forth the total commitment to realize the work with integrity, depth of feeling, and drama. They danced with the highest level of emotional commitment and physical strength. It looked professional."

Indeed a view into "the mindset one must have to be a professional dancer" was a key takeaway for Gunter. In working closely with Graham professionals, she says, "you can see the focus and determination in their eyes when they dance. They are so mature and focused, whether performing, warming up, or talking backstage. It was obvious to me through the dancers' demeanor that this type of work means a lot to them and that they have worked hard for it."

Also participating in the showcase, featuring several Graham masterworks and one piece by a former Graham dancer, were professionals from the Graham Center's second company, Graham 2, as well as students from Marymount Manhattan College, Rutgers University, the University of Iowa, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and teenagers from a range of institutions around New York City.

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