‘Let There Be Dance’: Senior Dance Theses Dazzle

By JOHN VAALER

At one point in “Chosen Family,” a dancer depicting the ancient monster Geyren commented, “It’s all too unpredictable.”    

Season 8 of “Game of Thrones” is unpredictable. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the NASDAQ and novels by Daphne du Maurier are unpredictable.

“Chosen Family,”  — the senior dance thesis that Caleb Green ’19, Lucy Grinnan ’19.5 and Maggie Phillips ’19 put on at the Dance Theater in the Mahaney Center for the Arts on the nights of May 3 and 4 — however, rocketed beyond the gray solar system of human predictability. The stage flooded with Greek Gods, atomic bonds, erotic desires, twisting limbs, smoke machines and many, many somersaults. To be in the audience of “Chosen Family” was to witness an hour-and-a-half of choreographic genesis in a garden of pirouettes, a primordial landscape where every heel click, pivot turn and shimmey radiated with mercurial mystery and bold bizarreness. Let there be dance.

The evening’s first half featured “Red Me,” a hard-nosed production choreographed and written by Green. The performance gave a 1960s take on the legend of the Greek monster Geryon (Christian Kummer ’22, Michah Raymond ’21 and John Camberfort ’21). All three dancers pulled off sensitive performances, highlighting Geryon’s developing identity and sexuality in three distinct periods of the monster’s life. Green’s choreography celebrated the spontaneity of the human (or, uhm, demigod) body: Kummer and Camberfort would interrupt a long silence by slamming their palms onto the ground or stomping in adolescent angst.  

The dialogue-heavy “Red Me” contained not only a lot of great dance, but high-octane drama. Green drooped her limbs while kinetically interpreting the legend of Geryon and Madeleine Russell ’19 played Geryon’s nicotine-loving Monster Mom with tragic heart. Ami Furgang ’20 energetically embodied a sculpture-come-alive; the junior film and media culture major zoomed to and fro, like a hummingbird that had been served one too many Red Bull Energy Drinks.  

The crown jewel of “Red Me” took place in the middle of the production. Seduced by the older Herakles (Haegan O’Rourke ’22), the adolescent Geryon (Raymond) wrestled his lover, using tricky lifts and heel spins that ranged from the somewhat flirtatious to downright erotic. O’Rourke and Raymond absolutely murdered it with high fives and jittery jumps, their writhing silhouettes bathed in crimson light. The floor-pounding duet perfectly captured the lusty anxiety of young romance. Throughout “Red Me,” but in this scene especially, Green’s uncompromising choreography conquered the audience.  

“Sentimentalia,” the second performance of “Chosen Family,” glistened in icy perfection. Its director, Grinnan, took inspiration from Ancient Greek poets. “The main poet is Sappho, whom I’ve loved since I was seventeen,” said Grinnan. “This text is not visible in the piece but shaped the movement vocabulary and relationships within it.” Although Greek poetry was its inspiration, the sweeping elegance of “Sentimentalia” also evoked the Romantic ballets of Tchaikovsky.  

Midway through the performance, Ariadne Will ’22 pivoted into the ether. She then landed on all fours and lightly descended into an upside down limb-crawl of sorts. In this scene, Will’s formidable ballet skills rocked the house. Had Russian ballet-legend Vaslav Nijinsky attended “Sentimentalia,” even he might have toasted Will’s dexterity with a respectful shot of Moskovskaya. 

“I dance because it allows an extension to beautiful moments,” mused Will. “There is something very raw about dance.”

Dance may be raw, but the casting of “Sentimentalia” was quite well-done. Maia Sauer ’22 emulated Arctic cool with a poised grapevine near the end, and Maddie Stewart-Boldin ’19 pulled off some spry runs.

Grinnan’s direction added to the thesis’ sangfroid. “In terms of my process, I tend to give dancers prompts and then edit their movement and set transitions, while other choreographers set movement directly on their dancers,” said Grinnan. “It is important to me that my dancers to feel agency over how they move their bodies.” “Sentimentalia” radiated with wit and grace, but the performance’s foremost quality was the sheer gentleness of its choreography and its dancers’ synergy.

The evening ended jubilantly: Maggie Phillips ’19 presented “Double Take,” a frothy coda of science puns and kinetic interpretations of chemical bonds. Phillips, a joint chemistry and dance major, will be working for AmeriCorps next year. One prays, however, that she eventually considers working for The Daily Show; her atom-themed dance routine had the crowd in stitches.  

“The creative process and the scientific method are very similar processes, if not the same process,” said Phillips. “I approach my dance-making in a very scientific framework, viewing my creation as an experiment.”

And experimental it was. Chole Zinn ’22 dazzled with a low-to-the-ground solo peppered by the occasional leapfrog over the backs of her peers. The dancers also contorted themselves into the pyramid structure of ionic bonds and disassembled in covalent pizzazz.

After twenty minutes, the show ended with revelry when Phillips instructed the audience to hurl dodgeballs at her dancers. “Double Take” stood out with its unique scientific approach, giving “Chosen Family” a tonic levity that raised the audience’s spirits. 

A hundred and six years ago, Igor Stravinsky shocked the world with the première of his jarring but beautiful ballet “The Rites of Spring.” The equally quirky and stunning dance thesis “Chosen Family” could very well be considered “The Rites of Middlebury” — the show not only triumphed creatively, but also moved audiences with its brutal grit.  

Much of the choreography in “Chosen Family” was inspired by the classics. It is then a happy coincidence that the production’s three authors donned the role of The Graces, the trio of artistic gods who made the earth a jollier, smarter place to live in. Phillips, Grinnan and Green shined. 

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‘Let There Be Dance’: Senior Dance Theses Dazzle