In one studio, 16 girls stand in perfect rows, posing with Spanish flair. Turn out. Angle your sholders. Chin up.
Next door, other dancers are executing precise foot work at an incredible pace to Vivaldi. Point your feet. Breathe.
As rehearsal ends, the tired dancers make their way back to the dressing room to take care of aching feet. They go home to get some rest before the process repeats the next day. It will continue to repeat for nine weeks until they are on stage for the Dance Department’s production of “Viva la Dance”.
Once they hit the stage their job is to make the steps look effortless. The performance should look easy, but that does not mean it is. Many audience members do not realize what hard work actually goes into achieving that aesthetic.
By the time of the show, the students will have put in about 90 hours of rehearsal. Two hours are built into the dance department schedule each weekday except Thursday. Sometimes, however, they are required to rehearse on the weekends.
Martin Løfsnes, of 360°Dance Company, came in during the term to set his piece 6-1. He was available for a limited amount of time, so the cast had an intense rehearsal period spanning from a Friday to a Tuesday.
“I couldn’t celebrate St. Patrick’s day because I had rehearsal for six hours on both Saturday and Sunday that weekend,” says Rachel Torgesen, a senior. In a span of five days she rehearsed for 21.5 hours. The piece is around 8 minutes long but the style is very specific and the dancers needed extensive coaching.
Some girls also use their own time to prepare for the show. Ashley Cook is one of the dancers cast as the lead in Paquita, a classical ballet. A junior, she takes 20 minutes before rehearsal to watch American Ballet Theater’s version on YouTube. “I go over the choreography and sequence on my own so I know what I am doing in rehearsal,” she says. “It also helps me get a better sense of the artistry.”
Emily McAveney, a sophmore, works outside of rehearsal also. “Italian fouettés have always been hard for me,” she says, naming a difficult ballet step, “and this is the first time I’ve had to do them for a show.” To make sure she is ready for the stage, she often practices this step after class.
Producing the concert also takes more than what might be thought. While the dancers may put in extra time throughout the term, the many people who are responsible for getting the show together have worked much more. Deciding which pieces to perform generally takes place about a year in advance.
“I usually try to know something about next year before the end-of-the-year awards ceremony,” says Tauna Hunter, chair of the dance department.
While part of this strategy is to give the students something to look forward to, much of the reason for this timeline is necessity. Lots of thought and research has to be done in order to determine what pieces will be best. Things considered include: what kind of dancers are availale in the department, what the students need to grow in their skills, the department’s budget, and what might appeal to the audience.
Relationships with working professionals are also cultivated to bring in guests. But bringing people in means hiring them. Last year, Hunter applied for an Academic Enrichment grant from the school as well as funding from ArtsErie so she could afford to bring in Cameron Basden. Basden is the Director of Dance at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and is a former dancer and Ballet Master with the Joffrey Ballet. She was at Mercyhurst for a week to set the second movement of Gerald Arpino’s Viva Vivaldi.
“I knew Cameron was able to stage the Arpino work and I try to be able to have major works here every so often,” says Hunter.
When deciding on programming, costumes and sets also have to be taken into account. While the students were relaxing at home during Christmas break, Hunter and Claudia Skal were in the costume loft backstage at the Mary D'Angelo Performing Arts Center beginning to plan for “Viva la Dance”.
Skal, costume mistress for the department, went through the racks with Hunter to decide what to use. In one case, costuming had to be figured out before the piece could even be cast. The costumes for Viva Vivaldi are rented from Interlochen and only certain sizes were available.
“The costume mistress at Interlochen sent me the measurements. Then we had to go through the measurement books [of the students in the department] and make a spread sheet to figure out who would fit before I even cast it,” says Hunter.
After they select the costumes, time still needs to be allotted for alterations. Of these rented costumes, Skal still has to alter seven of them. And that is only one piece in the concert.
Another piece being performed is Paquita, which requires 17 classical tutus. Before calling a fitting with the dancers, Skal and Hunter checked the measurements to assign tutus. Even with that prep work, several still require alterations. All 17 also requre additional decorations. And they do most of that work by hand.
Michael Gleason oversees the technical side of the performance. As Technical Director of Music and Dance, he is responsible for aspects such as laying down and taking up the performance floor, hanging and focusing the lights, constructing and painting scenery, and setting up sound equipment.
The floor and the lights alone require much work. The special floor is constructed of 67 pieces. Each piece is laid down and screwed into the stage. After those are secure, nine strips of marley—vinyl dance flooring— are taped down. Gleason hangs approximately 230 lights from five horizontal poles above the stage . Once fastened and the wires all attached, he has to individually adjust them so that the light hits the correct spot on the stage.
“I used to do all of that myslelf and it would take three days to strike,” Gleason says. Now, he teaches a 1-credit course, Production Practicum, for freshmen to introduce them to these technical aspects of the theater. To get a sense of how much time is put in, the students are required to work a minimum of 30 hours.
After all of this prep work, Gleason still runs the show. “I can’t just walk away on Friday,” he says, “I have to run everything.”
In addition to their other jobs, both Hunter and Gleason are busy rehearsing and coaching the dancers. Hunter is coaching the women’s variations for Paquita. She works individually with six dancers on solos where she gives corrections and advice on everything from technique to facial expressions. Gleason is coaching David Jakubson on the men’s variation in the same way. He also works with Jakubson, Cook, and Kristina Weimer—the other lead—on the pas de deux. This special “dance for two” needs extra focus because of the coordination required.
Even though extensive work is necessary, both in the studio and behind the scenes, once the production hits the stage it is all worth it.