In the world of modern dance, it is not often that students work directly with professional dancers to create choreography. But several University of Mississippi students are doing just that, through a program organized by the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
Through a competitive grant application, the Ford Center was selected to participate in South Arts’ Dance Touring Initiative. Throughout the three-year project, the Ford Center is collaborating with 10 theatres from across the Southeast, but is the only one offering such a unique experience to students.
During January, two dancers from David Dorfman Dance spent three days with UM dance and theatre students creating a 15-minute piece that will be performed April 9 in conjunction with “Prophets of Funk” at the Ford Center.
Jennifer Mizenko, UM professor of theatre arts, says the opportunity to create choreography that will be worked into a professional performance is a real first for her and her students. It is also the first time that Mizenko will perform at the Ford Center.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students because they will be a part of the company’s show, and David (Dorfman) is literally including us in the artistic work he has made,” Mizenko said. “It’s an honor, and something that is not typical at all in the industry. We are incredibly grateful to the Ford Center for making this program happen.”
With a shared commitment to community development and mentoring, the program is a natural fit for the Ford Center and David Dorfman Dance.
“Our dance company is completely collaborative in nature, and for David, that collaboration extends to the community. The community is a priority for the work and the company,” said Kendra Portier, a professional dancer who works with the David Dorfman Company. “He is zealous about creating and investing in community. Within that, these experiences of working with students are the best.”
The students participating in the program are all members of Mississippi: The Dance Company and performed together in the company’s annual fall dance concert, “Breaking Boundaries.” “Prophets of Funk” will include all 11 students and their teacher, together in the same dance piece. The experience of the David Dorfman residency is teaching students even more about modern dance performance, and about themselves and the industry they hope to join.
Dorfman also spent a day in Oxford, working with UM and Lafayette High School dancers as he began to make plans for the upcoming residency in April.
Kate Prendergast, a freshman from New Orleans with a double major in theatre and exercise science, said that the workshop and preparations for the performance are helping expand her horizons.
“I was excited that this opportunity came about because I’ve realized through this that I am really into choreography,” Prendergast said. “It gives me an opportunity to see how it doesn’t have to be all about a technique or how many turns you can do. It’s also about the story and what character you’re portraying.”
Starkville native David McKell, who is also a freshman and a theatre major, agrees.
“Because they were not here to teach us pre-planned dance moves, they kind of threw us into this,” McKell said. “It’s really interesting to learn the different styles of dance and the different ways we can make this something that people will want to watch. It helps me better understand where choreographers are coming from, and that is going to help me learn how to better work with them in the future.”
Besides creating and rehearsing together, students receive mentoring from the professional dancers.
“Hearing their stories about how they got to where they are now is super helpful because there are so many ways to go about a career,” Prendergast added. “As students, we are wondering what it takes to get there and what can we do to get ourselves there. It is nice to know we don’t have to have everything perfect and figured out now.”
Portier says that whether students go into musical theatre or theatre, they must be able to continuously evolve and respond. Most professional dancers who have career longevity are people who have several degrees, and who have gone to various schools for those degrees.
“For this particular work, for the genre of dance, simply learning a piece is not enough. It really is something that requires physical and mental agility,” Portier added. “These students have been fantastic. You have to be able to learn quickly and generate quickly, and these students have really taken to that.”
Since its founding in 1985, David Dorfman Dance has performed extensively in New York City and throughout North and South America, Great Britain and Europe, most recently in St. Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk in Russia and Bytom and Cracow in Poland. Dorfman and the company’s dancers and artistic collaborators have been honored with eight New York Dance and Performance (“Bessie”) Awards. More information about David Dorfman Dance is available athttp://www.DavidDorfmanDance.org.