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By Kate O'Neill
“In a seven-minute spin, the first two minutes are the worst. Then you get into it and the rest of the time goes by really fast.”
Trina Mannino was recalling a workshop in the Laura Dean method of spinning during her senior year at the University of Michigan. As a dance major, she had taken classes in Graham, Limón, and other modern styles. But until the fall of 2008, Mannino, like many of her fellow students, had never experienced the endless whirling and complex rhythmic patterns of post-modern choreographer Laura Dean.
All that would change when the Michigan dance department began preparations to restage Dean’s 1985 Impact for its January 2009 concert––the first showing of the work since Dean’s company last performed it more than 20 years earlier. Dance students, some of whom had never heard of Laura Dean, flocked to weekly three-hour workshops in Dean technique, hoping to join in the Impact revival.
A reigning choreographer in New York’s downtown from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, Dean created more than 40 works for her company Laura Dean Musicians and Dancers. Her early pieces, influenced by Eastern mysticism, were marked by long periods of spinning in silence; they created an almost devotional effect. Later, after receiving commissions from ballet companies, Dean began weaving ballet vocabulary into her choreography, while still making use of spinning and percussive, folk-like footwork. This was evident in Impact, one of her many collaborations with minimalist composer Steve Reich. Dancing the lead at the premiere was Amy Chavasse, a willowy young dancer who had just joined the company.
Now Chavasse is on the dance faculty at University of Michigan, having left Dean’s company in 1989 to choreograph and teach. But she stayed in touch with Dean, who had moved to North Carolina and effectively retired. “We’d talk about former company members who were reviving her works, and Laura would ask, ‘If there was a piece you could restage, what would it be?’ ”
Chavasse knew that any restaging of Dean’s work would require a joint effort between music and dance departments, since Dean’s work was always performed to live music. “When I came to Michigan in 2006,” she says, “I realized this was one place where that could happen.” At a faculty meeting a year after her arrival, Chavasse proposed the idea of reconstructing Impact. The new department chair, dance historian Angela Kane, was intrigued that the work hadn’t been performed in 20 years, and never outside Dean’s company. “And then,” says Chavasse, “I met Joe Gramley, a member of the music faculty, and found out he had played Reich’s ‘Sextet,’ the score for Impact, when studying with Reich at Juilliard. Everything was coming together.”
Except for one complication: Under the terms of the NEA grant for the production, reconstruction could not start officially until 2009. That allowed only three weeks to rehearse the 27-minute work between the first day of winter term and opening night on January 29. The only way she could succeed, Chavasse decided, was by introducing students to Dean’s approach in a series of workshops during the fall term. She would then audition workshop participants and hold daily four-hour rehearsals starting in January.
Throughout the 12 workshops, students immersed themselves in Dean’s distinctive movement language. At an early session in September, Chavasse began guiding them through the infamous spinning step, asking students to lower their gaze and not to spot, a technical quirk that took some getting used to. “The base of the skull is lifted, but eyes are cast downward,” she explained. She suggested they clasp their hands at about waist level, watching their thumbs to avoid spotting. “Maintain a strong center axis through the spine by keeping your feet under you. You don’t stop feeling dizzy; you just get used to it.”
Spinning is not the only hurdle in Dean’s work. Mannino says she found the rapid changes of rhythm particularly challenging, especially when moving in counterpoint to other dancers. “You see the other group out of your peripheral vision, and you just have to ignore them,” she says. When demonstrating a rhythmically complex foot pattern—for instance, jumps in parallel that shifted from side to side, with the accent changing in each measure––Chavasse stressed that in Impact, less is more. “See if you can release your thighs,” she suggested. “It should be a little less work—like tap dancing. Remember, this is the end of a 27-minute dance, and you are beyond exhaustion.”
At auditions in late November, Chavasse was on the lookout for hard-working, versatile dancers. “I needed people who could move through diverse styles,” she says. “They had to have clarity and line for the balletic stuff and upper body movement. But they also had to be grounded in the folk-like sections and have the stamina for spinning—or would push to gain it. There’s no room for error onstage when a lot of spinning people have to be in a certain place by a certain time.”
Chavasse double-cast sophomore Francesca Nieves (her assistant on the project) and senior Lara Martin in her own original part—a single woman dancing with four men. “Watching the video of that scene with them, I always referred to the soloist as ‘she,’ not ‘I.’ I didn’t want to be proprietary,” she says of the role that, until now, only she had danced. “I felt comfortable passing it on to Lara and Francesca. They’re very different dancers, from each other and from me.” Martin agreed with Chavasse that “the hardest thing was building your stamina for the part. Your brain had to be in so many different places at once. And you had to be beautiful and elegant and strong.”
When rehearsals began in January, “I was consumed by it,” says Chavasse. “It was all so intense, there was no time for reflection. We knew it just had to happen.”
In spite of the time crunch, the 14 cast members (accompanied by a student percussion ensemble that Gramley directed), met the challenge of performing Impact magnificently and with a deep appreciation for Dean’s work. “Students came up to me for weeks afterward, saying they missed those four-hour rehearsals,” Chavasse says. Perhaps junior Catherine Coury captured it best in her comments on the UM Dean Project website, where dancers posted photos and reflections throughout the process: “Every day that I do Dean’s work, my body is pushed to the edge. Spinning is something I wish to do every day of my life.”
Kate O’Neill has covered dance for the Detroit Free Press, Lansing State Journal, and Dance Magazine.
Photo by Peter Smith, courtesy of University of Michigan.