Fusing complex choreography with social issues that go beyond the stage, students in Cal Poly’s Orchesis Dance Company will be performing a 40th Anniversary Concert called “Continuum” in Spanos Theatre Jan. 29 through Feb. 6.
This year’s winter dance concert is a compilation of pieces choreographed by students, faculty and professionals that toy with actions as simple as breathing to concepts as intricate as the world’s connections. The concert has long been a part of Cal Poly’s art community.
Founded in 1969, Orchesis itself is a concert dance organization that allows Cal Poly students to immerse themselves in various dance styles after auditioning for the company in the first week of fall quarter. The dancers commit themselves to an intensive four-month-long rehearsal process to prepare for the final performance.
This is Diana Stanton’s second year directing the Orchesis Company. She is a full-time faculty member of the theater and dance department and also founder of local performance group, Variable Velocity. Her choreography has been presented professionally in many venues such as University of California, Irvine and the L.A. Open Festival.
Stanton said with the amount of good ideas this year, “Continuum” has evolved into an extensive show with 17 dances, 26 dancers and 10 student-choreographed pieces. Now, dancers take on more pieces than last year meaning less sleep and more rehearsals — up to 20 hours a week of studio time for some.
“They are all working really hard and though they are overextended they have been extremely professional,” Stanton said.
The title “Continuum” was drawn out of a hat of ideas that the company had voted on, and many dancers have run with that theme for the choreography in their pieces.
Crystal Valdez, a former president of the Orchesis company started by looking up the definition of continuum which she found as “a lack of definite transition.”
The piece she created is called “Birds and Circuit Boards.” She explores the meaning of a continuum by contrasting organic versus modern connections. The organic inspiration for Valdez came from the wave-like motion of bird formations, whereas the modern idea stemmed from circuits of technology.
“I liked the idea of using softer lines like bird formations in nature along with the sharp robotic movements of modern day connections,” Valdez said.
After a tedious search, she landed the perfect music for her piece with elements of chanting, electronic noises and Indian tabla music that Valdez said sounded similar to birds. Valdez graduated from Cal Poly in fall quarter with a degree in biochemistry making this her fifth and final show with Orchesis.
Orchesis vice president and architecture senior Jessica Thoma choreographed a piece entitled “Internal Sabotage.” With the creative placement of black and white translucent fabric on stage, Thoma’s piece focuses on striving for perfection and the internal struggles that come with that quest.
“Diana has really helped us to push the envelope this year and create something interesting,” Thoma said. “Exploring more conceptual dancing has really expanded our spectrum of dance.”
One of Stanton’s analogies for the modern piece she choreographed is how movement can be like the intricate connections found in the natural world, such as the complexity of ant mines.
Faculty members Michelle Walters and Moon Ja Suhr choreographed as well. Local professional, Lisa Deyo from the Ballet Theater of San Luis Obispo contributed a romantic and emotional piece. Guest choreographers from outside of the area include Chad Micheal Hall, a professor at Loyola Marymount and founder of MOVE Dance Theater, and BARE company founder Mike Esperanza.
Hall choreographed last year for the Orchesis “Momentum” performance. Meghan Hudson, a recreation, parks and tourism administration senior and focal dancer in Hall’s piece, said the movement is very personal to him and a reflection of himself.
“Last year (Hall’s piece) was very mad and angry where we were doing army crawls across the stage,” Hudson said. “This year was totally different. When he came he was a different person. He spent more time with us and made the piece more personal.”
Guinevere Chan, a business sophomore is taking on six dances in her second year with Orchesis. She will be performing among six other dancers in Mike Esperanza’s piece, which was taught to the Orchesis group in just one weekend. The piece is a play on “Cool” from the 1950’s American musical West Side Story. With a modern twist, Chan described the dance as intense and fun. Although Chan didn’t choreograph this year she hopes to for the student-run Spring Show held the last week of May.
“Orchesis and the Spring Show are great opportunities for students to choreograph,” Chan said. “A lot of places won’t let you do that.”
The students who are part of Orchesis take that opportunity very seriously. Dancers and Stanton agreed that the level of professionalism and maturity is more evident in choreography this year. Darren Bridges, industrial engineering junior and Rebecca Jensen, a business junior put together a contemporary piece entitled “ME” getting its name from an artistic approach to selfishness. Aside from his piece, Bridges says a piece entitled “VII” depicting the seven deadly sins choreographed by recreation, parks and tourism administration senior Kathleen Helm has been his favorite to rehearse.
“I feel like a lot of choreographers this year have a story to tell. The movement is clear and the message is clearer than previous years,” Bridges said.
According to Kathleen Helm, President of the Orchesis Company, the stage will see more professional modern dances this year. This being her third year choreographing for Orchesis, Helm got the idea for her dance while studying abroad in Thailand where she saw an art exhibit on the seven deadly sins.
“You see the sins represented in art a lot, but I’ve never seen it performed,” Helm said.
Hudson represents the deadly sin of gluttony in Helm’s haunting piece.
“It’s fun to be evil for seven or so minutes,” Hudson said. “I’m very aware of my stomach throughout the dance and I’m constantly touching it. I also use a lot of reach and grab motions as if I’m feeding off the audience.”
Hudson choreographed for Orchesis for the second time. She got the idea for her piece after observing the interactions of the women she was with on a camping trip this summer. She focused on the transition of when a daughter becomes a mother and a mother becomes a grandmother.
“My dance is about generations and the relationship between grandmothers, mothers and daughters,” Hudson said. “I tired to portray that with flowing movements and never-ending phrases. I didn’t think about it when I first started, but the title ‘Continuum’ definitely plays into my piece, especially with the dance being about the continuum of generations. The process keeps replenishing and people are always stepping into those roles.”
There’s a lot of work that goes into putting such socially in-depth concepts into movement and dance. Hudson explained how the choreographic process isn’t always easy.
“Starting everything is the hardest part,” she said. “I choreographed for six dancers last year, and this year when I turned around, there were 12 faces staring at me expecting me to tell them what to do.”
Orchesis traveled to San Francisco in early October where the 26 dancers were able to bond with each other while having the opportunity to dance various styles with some acclaimed choreographers. They learned African contemporary from Robert Moses’ Kin Dance Company and hip-hop from the Printz Dance Project.
“You feel included, you feel like you’re a part of something because you’ve just spent a weekend connecting with these people even though you just met them,” Hudson said.
Not only are student-choreographed pieces reflective of the concert’s title “Continuum,” but the finale represents the company’s journey this year. It was pieced together collaboratively with eight to 16 counts of movement contributed by every dancer as well as parts of choreography the dancers learned in San Francisco.
“The finale is sort of a scrapbook of our memories throughout the quarters,” Valdez said.
Spending countless hours together, the dancers have built connections of their own. Before each show, they allow enough time to huddle, connect and give appreciation to each other with what Valdez called “the hallway session.”
“When you are scatter-brained with all that’s going on, it’s nice to have that moment of clarity where we are all on the same page,” Valdez said.
Tickets for “Continuum” are $13 for the public and $10 for students.