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Posted on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 : 10:44 a.m.

University of Michigan dancers to explore theme of 'Translation'

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett


Michaela Wood, left, and Jennifer LaFreniere in Amy Chavasse's dance "Headless Woman," one of four modern dance works presented by the Department of Dance in their concert "Translation."

photo by Peter Smith Photography | courtesy of the University of Michigan

Translating from one language into another and then back to the original—or into a third, heaven forbid!—can result in nonsense. But for the pros at the University of Michigan Department of Dance and its company, the University Dance Company, with its roster of super student dancers, it’s no sweat. Their upcoming Power Center Show, Thursday through Sunday, is a feat of double translation that is sure to please.

The dances come from three faculty members—Amy Chavasse, Jessica Fogel and Sandra Torijano—and from the internationally celebrated Bill T. Jones, part of whose 1989 “D-Man in the Waters” has been restaged for the students by former Jones company member Germaul Barnes. Taking on the theme of “Translation” that was the focus of many classes at U-M in fall 2012, the four dances run with it, doing their own personal translations: of words, of visual art, of emotional states and feelings.

“It’s a very diverse show,” said U-M dance faculty member Judy Rice, who is artistic director for the concert. “It always seems like we get lucky that way, but our faculty is so diverse, it’s almost a given.”

Fogel’s “Hath Purest Wit: Anagrams for Eight Dancers and Thirteen Letters” kicks off the show. “It’s very clever,” said Artistic Director Rice. Get there early to catch it in two incarnations: first as a pre-show interactive lobby performance, and then for real on the Power stage to open the formal proceedings.

Fogel made the piece in 2011 for a U-M conference on “The Role of Art-Making and the Arts in a Research University,” and the dance expresses a key neuro-cognitive element of the creative process — insight thinking. The dancers keep reconfiguring a set of letters to form and embody new phrases, solving puzzles that have many possible solutions. A narrator, played by Professor of Theatre & Drama Leigh Woods, comments on the dancers’ actions throughout, quoting from Marcel Danesi’s “The Puzzle Instinct” and Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass.”



  • Who: University Dance Company, University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
  • What: A concert of dances by faculty choreographers and by the celebrated modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones, presented by this student company.
  • Where: Power Center for the Performing Arts, 121 Fletcher St.
  • When: Feb. 7-10: Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m..
  • How much: $20 and $26; $10 for students with ID. At the Michigan League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538, and online at
The dance is set to a musical collage featuring the work of composer John Adams paired with pop tunes. It features scenic design by Kasia Mrozewska, costume design by Suzanne Young and lighting design by Mary Cole.

It was an article about a sideshow at the North Carolina State Fair that set choreographer Chavasse on the path to “Headless Woman,” the 1998 dance she revisited and expanded in collaboration with her dancers this year. The article talked about the young woman who had signed up as the sideshow’s headless woman attraction.

Said Chavasse, in U-M press materials: “It offered up an astounding collection of facts: She was originally from San Francisco, was a college graduate, read Nieztsche during her cigarette breaks, and she had taken the job on a lark—to see the world through a totally unfamiliar prism to see people who were unlike anyone she had encountered so far in her life. She also remarked on the bawdy, sexually tinted, and crude comments uttered by those who passed through the exhibit. I was intrigued and riveted by the possibilities for a dance/theater endeavor.”

Composer/musician Andrew Hasenpflug created a new score for the dance, which also incorporates video by Chavasse’s sister, Caroline Chavasse.

Chavasse is not the only choreographer on the bill to include a sibling’s work in her dance. The set for Torijano’s “Aria Vitale” features part of a sunflower mural by her brother, Eduardo Torijano, a painter and professor at the University of Costa Rica.

For choregrapher Torijano, the sunflower is a metaphor for “looking for the light in my life and inner strength,” as she said in U-M press materials. And, indeed, in a dance that Artistic Director Rice describes as “rhapsodic and passionate,” Torijano treats themes of love, humanity and farewell, all amplified by the music by Monteverdi, Villa-Lobos, J.S. Bach and Alberto Iglesias. As in the other U-M-created dances, set design is by Mrozewska, costumes by Young and lighting by Cole.

The ideas that Torijano treats in “Aria Vitale” are not dissimilar to the ones on Jones’ mind in his glorious and moving “D-Man in the Waters.” He made the dance shortly after the death of his partner, Arnie Zane, for the company that the two had together, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company. It is dedicated to company dancer Demian Acquavella, who was battling AIDS-related illness during the creation of the work and passed away in 1990.

But the work—a beautiful and moving signature work for its MacArthur Award-winning choreographer—celebrates survival and the resilience of the human sprit; it is more about life than death, in many ways.

Barnes directs his own dance company, Viewsic Expressions Dance, these days. But he danced with Jones/Zane for 9 years. He has spent late January at U-M setting Part I of the dance, which uses the extraordinary music of the Mendelssohn Octet, on the U-M dancers.

“It’s a very highly emotionally charged work for me, not only personally but for my friends who have passed away over the years,” he said in a phone conversation. “But the work itself is about triumph and supporting one another, and about forming a community that supports each other. It’s about community and an uplifting feeling.”

It’s also highly physical work: Barnes remembers his feelings part-way through the first movement: exhaustion coupled with the knowledge there were still three and a half movements to go. In some sense, that goes along with the dance’s core idea that when life gets exceedingly tough, you have to push through, with help from friends, to make it to the other end.

In fact, Barnes said that one of the dance’s lessons for its performers is to trust and to break down barriers.

“It challenges us as dancers,” he said. “Usually, we concentrate on ourselves; we want to be the best performer, to have everything technically together. When you’re in a work like this, it’s time to use those techniques to support everyone around you, to be present with each other. This is a big discussion I have with the dancers every time I restage the work. It’s not only my experience, but what is rooted in the work.”

The U-M dancers have been a joy to work with, he said.

“I’ve been very impressed with the dancers here,” said Barnes, who has set the dance at other universities since it was licensed for staging outside the Jones/Zane troupe three years ago.

“The University of Michgian has a reputation of producing intelligent artists,” which is important to Jones, Barnes noted. “It’s been a wonderful experience working with these dancers.”

Concertgoes will see the dance with its original costumes by Liz Prince and lighting by Robert Wierzel. They’ll also have a chance to discuss it in a post-performance Curtain Call chat on Friday or to attend a panel discussion devoted to “’D-Man in the Waters:’ Then and Now” on Wednesday (Feb. 6). Participants include three dancers who danced it with Jones/Zane - Barnes, Janet Lilly and Arthur Aviles - plus the U-M’s Peter Sparling and concert Artistic Director Judy Rice. The discussion takes place 12:10-1:10 p.m. in Studio A at the Dance Building, 1210 N. University Court on the U-M Central Campus. It is free and open to the public.