Fall dance concert brings time and talent to the stage

Dancers rehearse for student choreographer Chelsea Pawlak's piece. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.
Dancers rehearse for student choreographer Chelsea Pawlak’s piece. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.

“Dance is more than fancy tricks,” senior dance major Chelsea Pawlak told me last week in the lobby of the Performing Arts Center. It is not simply memorizing moves and performing them back to an audience with an added flair or two in the center of a dimly-lit stage. It is personal and public; it is born from inspiration and emotion. And perhaps most importantly, dance is not done alone.

Members of the Seton Hill community and beyond are welcome to discover this at the fall dance concert, which will be taking place in the Ryan Theatre Oct. 13-16. Tickets are available online at the Seton Hill box office. This concert will feature the works of assistant dance professors Stefan Zubal and TaMara Swank, as well as work by several student choreographers.

This concert has been months in the making, the work of many hands. The process of putting it together began early – earlier than usual, in fact. This year, the dates for the dance and theatre performances have been switched, thus moving the dance concert ahead in the schedule.

According to Swank, this change is being implemented on a trial basis in the hopes that it will ease pressure on the theatre department. Regarding the dance concert, she said that “It’s a generally easier show to get into, production-wise.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been an easy semester for the choreographers and crew of this concert. Work began at the end of last semester, when the floor of the Ryan Theatre was pulled up and redone to ensure a quality performance space for the dancers. Unfortunately, the floor did not set right the first time and had to be torn out again.

Dancers practice a move from student choreographer Chelsea Pawlak's piece. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.
Dancers practice a move from student choreographer Chelsea Pawlak’s piece. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.

Once that was completed, a proscenium – the frame around the edges of the stage, which provides a clean window for the audience to view performances through – had to be built. This is normally a permanent part of most stages, but the nature of the Ryan Theatre challenges this convention. The theatre itself is designed so that every component may be altered depending on the nature of the performance.

Along with the proscenium, curtains had to be hung and lights set. Ken Clothier, an assistant professor of theatre, spoke of these early production tasks, rattling them off in a matter of fact manner that spoke to his years of experience in theatre production. As acting technical director for the dance concert, he has helped coordinate the floor renovations, proscenium and set piece construction, lighting, setting up sound systems and more.

“It takes work to make our big, empty space into a functional big, empty space,” said Clothier. He estimates that work on the floor, stage and set pieces amounted to roughly three and a half weeks of work. As for production work during the semester, he and others working on the fall dance concert have put in an estimated 140 hours per week in addition to time put in by work study students.

According to Clothier, a key part of this process is the work done by the costume shop. Both students and faculty spoke highly of theatre instructor and costume shop manager Sue O’Neill and her workers. Clothier noted that costume work for a dance concert is in fact more complex than for theatre productions. In a play or musical, typically only one story is explored and throughout the course of that story, costume pieces can be reused. However, in a dance concert there are several stories all taking place in one space.

For example, clothing plays a large role in the story behind senior dance and business major Heather Long’s piece. “She does so much and she does it so well,” said Long in reference to O’Neill. “She’s really great.”

Shown above are some of the many lights set up for the dance concert. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.
Shown above are some of the many lights set up for the dance concert. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.

Long’s story deals with homelessness, a journey characterized by the main character’s interactions with different people she meets. At the end of each interaction, this character is gifted with another piece of clothing.

Another hidden part of the concert is lighting, which is certainly no flip of the switch. This concert’s lighting designers were Clothier and senior musical theatre major Greg Messmer, with Clothier designing lights for the student pieces and Messmer designing lights for the faculty pieces.

Messmer has been intrigued by the lighting design process since taking a production technology class his freshman year of college.

“Lighting design is a grey area in the choices you’re able to make, especially in dance,” he said. Lights can be used to evoke certain emotions or spaces – for Swank’s musical theatre piece, Messmer is using light angles to mimic those of a rock concert. Just about the only requirement going into the design process is that every part of the stage must be lit since the dancers will be using it all.

The light and sound boards pictured are set up for the concert. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.
The light and sound boards pictured above are set up for the concert. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.

As such, Messmer and Clothier have a surprising amount of creative freedom. However, they must coordinate with each other to ensure that the choices they make do not cause issues for the other designer. They must also work closely with the choreographers and dancers – in fact, the lighting designers interact with just about every other person working in the concert.

Messmer pointed out that color choice is connected to costume design; he strives to select colors that do not wash out the costumes. In a way, lighting design is the work behind the work. What you see on stage – how you see it – should be effortless.

“You want to highlight the bodies, you don’t want to distract from the work the dancers are doing,” said Messmer. Stage manager Angela Mazzocco echoed this sentiment, noting the communication that goes on backstage.

“Stage managers do a lot of work that is unseen, and act as the communicator between everyone involved,” said Mazzocco. A junior musical theatre major, she will spend the concert in the booth watching a live video feed.

“It’s my job to make sure the dancers are where they need to be backstage, as well as communicating with the house manager, the wardrobe manager and the sound and light board operators when we’re running the show,” Mazzocco added.

As for the pieces themselves, the choreographers and dancers have been hard at work as well. Due to the early concert date, dance auditions were held the Wednesday of the first week of school. Inspiration for the pieces began even before that, from days to weeks and even years earlier.

For many of the choreographers, a piece begins in music. Pawlak will often go to the studio and listen to a song forty or more times before playing with it and letting movement come to her in a gentle give and take of trial and error.

For others, the piece has its roots in outside inspiration. Zubal spoke of Van Gogh’s paintings and an article on Tchaikovsky, and how both artists found meaning in the darkest of times.

“I wanted to do a piece that’s fun, had no dark moments, is just beautiful,” said Zubal.

Lighting designer Greg Messmer looks on at a rehearsal. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.
Lighting designer Greg Messmer looks on at a rehearsal. Photo courtesy of B.Malley.

Swank had a slightly different experience. Early in the semester, a musical theatre student approached her and asked about the possibility of doing a musical theatre piece in the dance concert. Swank said she took some time to mull over the possibility, eventually agreeing and ultimately taking the student on as an associate choreographer. The result is a rock n’ roll piece that thrives on collaboration.

“We have dancers that are both dance majors and musical theatre majors,” said Swank. “It’s interesting because I think that they inspire each other in different ways. The musical theatre students have a more natural knack for the performance and acting of the piece, and the dancers have more of the technical training for the actual steps. I’ve watched it grow in a very interesting way because of that.”

Published By: Paige Parise

One thought on “Fall dance concert brings time and talent to the stage

  1. I wish the writer didn’t toggle back and forth between theater and theatre. Let’s pick a country, shall we? Hint: it’s the U.S.

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