A foot hovers just above the floor. Descending to embrace the stage, it meets the ground, bolstering the person upright. A foundation, a stride. So much of our nature rests on a step—standing with grace. The step vitalizes the human spirit, giving us movement and grace.
Whether in a brisk outburst of energy or as a slow, docile kiss to the floor, the step remains the building block of dance. With purpose and poise, the step deposits security in the dancer, freeing her to loosen that stored energy of a single step into a flurry of grace and movement throughout her body. The Boston College Dance Ensemble harnesses that simple power in all of its performances to create some of the most compelling and visually captivating displays on Robsham stage. Dance Ensemble has championed progression and tradition. From the jaunty romps of jazz to the dreamy adroitness of ballet, this troupe embraces an eclectic skillset. Though the group steps toward the future as it prepares for its latest show, Masquerade, Dance Ensemble keeps a deft foot on the pulse of its artistic bedrock.
Dance Ensemble is steeped in a rich, 37-year tradition at BC—the dance group is the University’s oldest still in operation. As such, the organization has inherited a wealth of knowledge and tradition from prior iterations of the team. Passing on leadership within the organization is a responsibility that keeps the organization thriving both on and off the stage.
“We have a strong history. This is a well-established, well-run dance group,” said Emily Durkin, the group’s director and MCAS ’17. “If I could show you what was handed down to us, it’s just pages and pages of what to do that upholds institutional continuity.”
Part of that continuity is brought to life through the ties to its alumni, who make themselves available to critique the ensemble pre-performance. As Durkin explained, their advice gives feedback during the critical polishing period of performances. This kind of unique and invaluable exchange allows for the networking of Dance Ensemble to pay dividends, allowing for previous generations to influence the group in its current incarnation. This desire and commitment that alumni be a part of this organization outside of of their own tenure speaks volumes of the integrity of the troupe. Dance Ensemble represents a sort of ensemble of dancing abilities that transcends BC and her campus proper.
The organization does not only dip into the creative wells of seasoned dancers and alumni, but also into those of its current members. Dance Ensemble performances are tailored to the vision of an individual choreographer. That vision is brought to life through an intimate knowledge of technical skills and creative dexterity. Tapping into reservoirs of past dance experiences, choreographers are well-equipped to translate their own skills into a collective dance setting.
“Most of us have been training in dance, jazz, ballet, lyrical, or tap, since we could walk,” Durkin said.
Around half of the girls within the troupe fall into strong jazz or ballet foundations. But the ability of dancers to pick up new skills and sharpen others is routine within the organization.With that high level of skill, Dance Ensemble can fruitfully convert individual talents into collective creative energy.
“Each one of the members brings to the table, her own level of creativity,” Kelly Sangster, assistant director and MCAS ’17, said. “When you combine that with someone else’s you are able to produce these visual pieces, and I think that speaks to how we succeed as a group and not just as individuals.”
Dance Ensemble practices upward of 20 hours a week to ensure that each dancer can remain as sharp and brilliant as the one next to her. Often, Sangster explained, the group hires professionals to come in and instruct in their expertise to sharpen the skills of each member of Dance Ensemble.
“We’re not only focused on producing the pieces to perform all throughout campus, but we also really focus on keeping up on our training and keeping up the quality of all our dancer on the team,” Sangster said.
This is not to suggest that there is no place for the individuals to bring out a unique voice within the ensemble. In the craft of choreography, members can find ways to bring out their personal ideas and visions. The result is often something personal and intimate, even if two people are choreographing the same type of dance.
This idea is manifested through the musings of the choreographer, enveloped in personal circumstances and fueled by their own vision. Choreographers can hand off ideas to their dancers, to which the dancers interpret the vision through their individual performance.
“A lot of choreographers will specify an emotion for their dance, and you can take that wherever you want,” Durkin said.
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In this way, the end performance is fueled by the overarching vision of the choreographer, made real through the collective interpretation by the dancers. An reticent ballet performance is seen through the waning movements and stern faces of its dancers, while a blithesome contemporary piece will adopt a more free-spirited display. For Durkin and Sangster, this kind of emotional backbone is more artistically fulfilling than a purely technical display.
“We find that movement that is motivated by an emotion or a story is more compelling for the audience and the dancers,” Durkin said.
This, Durkin explains, keeps the dancers, literally, and the audience, figuratively, on their toes.
And it is precisely this movement that makes many of Dance Ensemble’s performances overtly or quietly stirring.
“By combining your body, you are able to express levels of emotion that you can’t with just your face or just your voice,” Sangster said. “Or a song even, adding that instrumental background, because you are not borrowing the emotion from the song you’re dancing to, you are adding that emotion with your face and combining that with your body.”
That kind of emotion is not monotone, however, as each style elicits a different sentiment. Durkin explained that the possibilities are endless and multifaceted in and between pieces. From happy jazz to sad contemporary or simply beautiful ballet and tap, the emotional range allowed by dance is astounding, and Durkin explained just how malleable the artform truly is.
The execution, on the part of Dance Ensemble, is imperative to conveying emotion through the artistry.
“Everytime you move sharply, you get different emotion than if you move smoothly, and I feel that really speaks to the differentiation between all the styles that we do,” Sangster said.
But such emotional affectation is lost if it is not shared, which is why, especially for the artform, the audience remains a crucial and inseparable component. Without the audience, the visual beauty is never witnessed and the intellectual challenge is lost for many dancers.
“There is a limitation without the audience.” Sangster said. “I think the audience brings a lot out of each individual member when they are performing.”
For Durkin and Sangster, knowing that someone is bearing witness to the performance, regardless of the size of the crowd, creates a kind of unspoken energy on stage. It is the fuel that creates more meaning in the moments between movements, connecting one pose to another—connecting the audience to the dancers.
“Dance is really about the connection between moments,” Sanger said.
Dance Ensemble knows that these moments, as evidenced by its history, are but a few marks on a page of a larger story. As such, it invests much of their time in the future of those within and outside their organization.
Friendship and love are the munitions on which the organization thrives. Dance Ensemble gives all of its ticket sales to the Campus School. On the inside, it invests in a future of achievement and progress through its rigorous maintenance of quality and popularity of its shows. Durkin and Sangster explain that it is important to continually gain recognition for students within the group to reach new people to keep the cycle of members going and to encourage those without friends in BC’s dance community to engage in its vibrance.
Dance Ensemble had only six weeks to prepare for Masquerade, but its efficiency makes it ready for this Friday and Saturday. Its poise, given such a challenge, attests to the deep and hearty roots staked out on this campus. But in this challenge comes some of the sweetest rewards leading up to a performance.
“During this week, when it’s insane there is a million things going on, we are pulling every string to make this show happen and make it run smoothly,” Sangster said. “That’s when you make the best memories. That’s when you have the most fun with your 30 best friends.”
When watching Dance Ensemble, one thing remains clear—that these were not simply individuals, but a collective entity of friends coalescing to form something more grand than any one performer could on her own. Many performance aspects of the group are reminiscent of that of a school of fish—a collective sentience. Overarching, unified motion is captured through the small refined contributions of each dancer. When beneath the lights on stage, as if moving beneath rays of sun piercing the ocean’s surface, the majesty of such movements capture a raw, bodily beauty not unlike those enshrined in the machinations of nature.
Movement is crucial to humankind as a whole—without it we risk stagnation. When looking at such stunning images, one must be open to transcend our seats in the audience and step into a deeper state of passion with those on stage.
“Watch for the emotion. Be open to the piece that you are seeing and be moved by it.” Sangster said. “Be open to being moved by it.”
Featured Image By Shaan Bijwadia/ Heights Staff