George Mason University’s (GMU) School of Dance will begin their 16th Annual Mason Dance Company Gala Concert on Friday and Saturday with a performance in honor of George Mason University President Alan Merten and Sally Merten.
“Each year we work with or commission work from major choreographers,” said GMU School of Dance Director Buffy Price. “To honor the Merten’s, I called David Parsons, one of Sally Merten’s favorite choreographers,” she said. “He is allowing us to use his dance Swing Shift, and to dedicate our performance to the Mertens.” The Mertens are retiring in June.
Parsons is founder and artistic director of Parsons Dance, and a former lead dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company. Swing Shift is his intimate, lively dance for four couples based on swing dance elements and performed to music composed by Kenji Bunch.
Second on the program is the premiere of GMU Professor and choreographer Christopher d’Amboise’s Full Circle.
d’Amboise came to George Mason’s faculty following a career spanning classical ballet, modern dance, and musical theater. He studied with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and later served as the artistic director, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Ballet. He earned a Tony nomination for his appearance in the Broadway production of Song and Dance.
Full Circle is a contemporary modern ballet set to the second movement of Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Philip Glass. “I personally find the music really emotional and really haunting,” said d’Amboise.
d’Amboise said Full Circle is a very simple piece, only ten minutes in length, based on the idea of a circle as a menacing agent in one’s life. “Continually coming back to the same place is not a good thing when you’re trying to get somewhere,” he said. “The tag line for this piece could be, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.’” "In the end it takes courage to keep trying, to persevere," he said.
During auditions for the Pas de Trois, d’Amboise looked for dancers, “who spoke to me, and had a spark of some kind,” he said. “I chose three very different people, at three very different levels, with three very different styles.”
“Justin Ross is fascinating because he came to George Mason from South Dakota two years ago, showed up in a beginning modern dance class with no previous dance experience and was naturally gifted,” said d’Amboise. Suddenly Ross decided he wanted to major in dance, but GMU couldn’t accept him because he had no dance training. Ross worked intensely over the summer, failed the first audition, worked even more, re-auditioned and was accepted. “I’ve never met anyone who has achieved so much so late as a dancer,” said d’Amboise.
The two women in Full Circle are Grace Ball, a Fairfax native, and Celine Berthaud, from Boston, Mass. “Grace is a beautiful dancer with elegant classical ballet lines and emotion,” said d’Amboise. “Celine is a powerhouse. I was taken with her during audtions because she took what I gave and did more with it. She’s a very emotional dancer.”
The third piece on the Gala program is Bedtime, by Mark Morris. The choreography juxtaposes three standing figures, three sleeping figures and one spirit adorned in gold in an exploration of sleep and death. The work is set to three pieces by Franz Schubert: Wiegenlied, D498, Ständchen, D920 and Erlkönig, D328.
“We tend to do a work by Mark Morris every-other-year,” said Price. Mason’s Dance School has a strong relationship with the Mark Morris Dance Group. Many of the teachers have worked with and some GMU alumni now dance with the company.
In preparation for this performance, the dancers had the extra pleasure of rehearsing with Mark Morris himself. “He was in town performing at the Kennedy Center and arranged for the dancers to work with him there,” said Price.
D-Man in the Waters
The gala concludes with a reconstruction of Part I of D-Man in the Waters by Bill T. Jones. This New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Award-winning work is set to Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20. The choreography celebrates life and the triumph of the human spirit. The work was featured in the PBS film “Dancing in the Light – Six Dances by African-American Choreographers.”
Jones is executive artistic director of New York Live Arts. He has won many awards, including two Tony Awards and the 2005 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement, and he was a 2010 Kennedy Center Honoree.
A Team Experience
Price said the annual gala is a team experience with faculty and students collaborating on multiple levels. “The program is selected and prepared to showcase a variety of modern dance,” said Price. “Mason dancers are at or very close to professional-level dancers. Our gala is a great concert for those who love movement, and for those new to dance.”
The Mason Dance Company Gala Concert begins at 8 p.m. March 30 and 31 at the Center for the Arts. Tickets are $20 for adults; $12 for students, staff and seniors; and $10 for groups of 10 or more. Tickets may be purchased at the Center for the Arts Box Office, by phone at 888-945-2468, or online cfa.gmu.edu.