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Dance Visions: UCI Dance Department’s Finest Faculty Showcase

By Julia Clausen

The house of the Irvine Barclay Theater was packed last Thursday, Feb. 23, for opening night of Dance Visions, the UCI Dance Department’s annual performance of faculty choreographed works. A wide variety of styles were represented this year from playful and energetic classical ballet repertoire to the grounded and moving works of modern dance.

Transplanted from its usual place in the Claire Trevor Theater, this production made full use of the larger space, including bringing the UCI Orchestra to perform live which is a rare treat for most dancers and audiences these days. The orchestra accompanied two classical ballet pieces: “A Moment,” a new work by Molly Lynch and a re-staging of “Valse Fantaisie,” the classic work by ballet legend George Balanchine.

Additionally, the opening number, a modern piece by Chad Michael Hall, brought two musicians on stage to perform “Closer Orbits,” an original composition by UCI Professor Alan Terricciano, alongside the dancers. This UCI collaboration told the story of peasant-like characters dressed in earth-tone linens as they danced languidly through the night and basked in starlight, created by hidden-disco-ball-type lighting effects and smoke.

The highlights of the evening were the performance of “The Legend of Ten,” a classic piece of contemporary work from Lar Lubovitch and the premiere of Donald McKayle’s latest work, “Crossing the Rubicon.”

Lubovitch hails from the era when modern dance as it is today was just forming and began his career as a student under dance world giant Martha Graham at The Juilliard School. He later founded the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in New York City in 1968 which, now at 74 years old, he still runs full-time. He was hired this year as a Distinguished Professor at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, so on his days off, he flies to Irvine to teach his repertory to UCI dancers.

According to one of the dancers in Lubovitch’s  Dance Visions piece, senior Emily Guerard, Lubovitch is extremely particular but also very kind. “Working with [Lubovitch] is amazing,” she said. After working with the Distinguished Professor for only a month, Guerard could tell that Lubovitch was the best of the best. “He’s one of the most inspiring choreographers I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “You can tell that he’s very good at mentoring and cultivating us [as dancers].”

Besides a prolific choreographer, Lubovitch is also an avid painter, so his approach to dance is to “paint the stage,” explains Guerard. His piece for Dance Visions, “Legend of Ten,” demonstrated this style perfectly as dancers swept around the stage in fluid, swirling motions like long brush strokes.

However, this piece had a more particular interpretation of its movement. According to the program, the 10 dancers are meant to use their bodies and their stamping feet as the “legend,” which “maps out the music,” so that the rise and fall of the music is made visible. The dancers were in constant motion as they flowed like water in and out of formations and created alternating levels of curved lines with their bodies like mountains and valleys.

McKayle, on the other hand, is known for his strong lines and powerful storytelling, and his piece “Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return” delivered just that. Set to the moving music of Indian composer and sitar player Anoushka Shankar, against projected images of people traveling long distances and carrying heavy loads on their backs, the piece conveyed the struggles of a people displaced from their homes.

McKayle has been teaching at UCI for over 20 years, and although he has officially retired as a professor, he continues to mentor students through the performance group he founded called Etude Ensemble. The dancers of Etude are very dedicated to him.  Though McKayle is confined to a wheelchair, dancers work hard to interpret his verbal instructions into movement until they finally encapsulate the world-renowned choreographer’s vision because they know that working with him is a high honor.

“Crossing the Rubicon” began with a long line of dancers slowly walking across the stage with curling wrists and heads held high and concluded with many of the dancers on the floor, twisted in painful poses. The rest was filled with harsh movements and bent knees, creating a sense of trudging through rough terrain. The piece continued to intensify in its strength and energy until the audience could plainly see the dancers’ exhaustion. However, they used that pain as weight to the movement of their feet and shoulders, giving their performance emotional drive. The effect was very poignant and the dancers received the loudest applause of the night.

To have the likes of both Professor Emeritus Donald McKayle and Distinguished Professor Lar Lubovich as part of the faculty teaching UCI undergraduates to dance, rehearse, and perform like professionals is truly remarkable and ranks UCI Dance among many of the top dance programs in the country.

Overall, Dance Visions 2017 offered a truly impressive display of the diversity, strength and prestige of the UCI Dance Department.