DanceWise: Body and Soul revamps choreography and premieres new student works

Sewanee students perform in Courtney World’s “Liminal.” Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).

By Katherine LeClair
Executive Staff

Sewanee’s sixth annual production of DanceWise premiered last week in the Proctor Hill Theatre at the Tennessee Williams Center, with the theme of “Body and Soul” bringing together a variety of dance styles.

Student choreographers and guest artists alike contributed pieces to this performance under the mentorship of Assistant Professor of Dance Courtney World.

During her first year teaching at Sewanee, World built the DanceWise program to “create something that was for the department, that was more like a professional dance concert.” In comparison to Perpetual Motion, Sewanee’s student-run dance production, DanceWise focuses on a handful of longer works that are united under a theme.

“The basic structure of the show has remained the same,” said World. “I perform, I choreograph, guests artists are involved… and students who have a little bit more experience and skill and guidance choreograph.”

Danielle Silfies (C’19), Julianna Morgan (C’21), Robin Kate Davis (C’21), and Ashlin Ondrusek (C’19) created the student works for DanceWise after undergoing an audition process and participating in a variety of workshops and rehearsals.

Silfies’ piece, Cabaret, opened the show. This number revisited choreography from the musical Cabaret which was produced by the Theatre and Dance Department last fall. With inspiration from renowned choreographer Bob Fosse, Silfies’ dancers performed jazzy and dynamic movements. The piece closed with an exciting kickline.

“In the original musical, it starts off as a very fun number,” said Silfies, “and as you get more into the actual entr’acte kick line you realize that… the [characters] who are dancing are actually Nazis.”

One of the challenges of revamping this piece was morphing the somber intent into a celebratory expression. “This wasn’t the kind of mood we wanted to open the show,” Silfies explained.

Liminal, choreographed by World, followed Cabaret. This contemporary dance was originally performed by Sewanee students at the American College of Dance Association (ACDA) in April of 2018, but World gave it a new life for DanceWise.

“We had more time to live in the fullness of it,” said World. “We got to perform it four times, in costumes, lights. We didn’t get that opportunity last year.”

For the dancers, Liminal embodied the theme of “Body and Soul.” Ondrusek commented that throughout the piece, “we would make eye contact with each other and then breathe into different positions….That is what I think brought us together and kept the movement together.”

World’s solo, Tintal, has an even longer history of performance and reinvention. Choreographed by Bill Evans in 1972, this dance has been performed by soloists and ensembles alike at many professional dance companies.

Because of its precise movements and impeccable technique, World admitted that Tintal was “one of the most challenging pieces” of her career.

When she met with Evans last June, World originally learned this piece as a duet. While performing in DanceWise, she envisioned her partner dancing alongside her.

“I was thinking about the history of the work and all of the other dancers who have danced it,” she said. “I felt like I was stepping into this lineage of performers.”

To close the show, World premiered her new work Soul to Sole. “I knew right away that I wanted to create a dance that was percussive and jazzy and rhythmic,” said World. With live accompaniment and participation from the entire ensemble, World achieved just that.

The production of this piece was an interdisciplinary and collaborative process between dancers and musicians. Pianist Bramwell Atkins (C’21) composed original music and World herself accompanied him on drums.

“I’d never done anything like that before,” said World. “Since I knew the rhythms of the dance, it was fun for me to bring those out in the drumming.”

“It was a process of layering,” explained ensemble dancer Silfies. To build the piece, dancers created improvisational phrases and set them to different rhythm patterns. This resulted in exuberant and spontaneous movements that conveyed genuine enjoyment.

World remarked, “There’s nothing like performing. That’s what we do it for. To get it in front of an audience and to feel all the magic come together.”

“It’s what I live for, really, at this point in my life,” she continued. “I just still love performing and I love seeing the dancers have that same experience.”