How Do You Stand Out at a Dance Festival?

Putting together a dance for a major festival—where it will be shown alongside dozens of others—is no easy task. How do you make something grab an audience when they're experiencing so many pieces at once?

That question was on my mind last week while watching 31 works at the American College Dance Association's National Festival at The Kennedy Center. I was on a panel with choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and dance writer Lisa Traiger to choose the recipients of the ACDA/Dance Magazine Awards for Outstanding Student Choreography and Outstanding Student Performance. Each comes with a $1,000 prize—and some serious bragging rights.

We got to see some of the best work that college dance has to offer: The 31 pieces were selected from 513 student, faculty and guest works from 348 college dance programs that attended ACDA's regional conferences over the past school year. Our job was to choose the crème de la crème.

So what stood out to us? From my point of view, here's what I'd tell choreographers:

1. Take risks. A number of works this year took on social and political issues such as racial inequality and gender identity. The dancer we chose for Outstanding Performance, Coker College undergraduate Tierra Foxworth, fearlessly portrayed a powerful personal testimony about  being told to smile as a black woman.

CSU, Fullerton dancers. Photo by Edwin Lockwood

2. Rehearse strategically. When used well, group unison can be striking. Our honorable mention for performance went to an ensemble of four men from California State University, Fullerton, for the way each dancers' focus, intention and movement quality all heightened the strong, joyful energy shared among the cast.

3. Clarify musicality. A lot of movement passes before the audiences' eyes at a festival. A dynamic response to the score can startle your viewers in the best way.

4. Play with humor. Comedy in dance is hard to pull off. But when successful, it can give a boost of pure joy (especially in a festival setting where many artists may be tackling darker issues). This was definitely the case with fourtold, by four graduate students from University of California, Riverside, which won Outstanding Student Choreography.

5. Buck trends. When most everyone is performing experimental modern work in pedestrian outfits, a Limón piece in unitards and a Mexican folk dance with 12 live musicians onstage can be welcome treats.

Sonoma State's Hannah Ingwerson via Facebook

6. Create clear structure. Deliberate, creative formations show sophistication. We gave Sonoma State University undergrad Hannah Ingwerson an honorable mention for her ingenious use of various choreographic configurations within two overhead spotlights onstage.

7. Explore a unique motif. Rather than throwing all your ideas into one short dance, focusing in on one or a few can be captivating. I still can't stop thinking about one dancer who simply shook rapidly for minutes at a time.

 8. Have fun. It may sound trite, but dancers' energy can be infectious. By the end of any festival, I always find myself craving a fun, upbeat piece. Great dance can accomplish many things, and the value of lifting an audience's spirits should never be underestimated.

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"A heartbreaking reality is that some companies may not recover financially from this pandemic," says Nora Heiber, the Western executive at the American Guild of Musical Artists. Many large companies will survive by tightening their belts, but smaller groups, hardly with an abundant cash flow to begin with, may face closures, leaving their dancers afloat in a tenuous job market. We asked three experts, including a dancer who has been through a company closure, to weigh in on what to do when your job disappears.

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