Most students are very aware of Principia’s annual Dance Production, which begins tomorrow. “Dance Prod,” as the phenomenon is colloquially known, has long been an established annual event. It dates back to at least 1987, when dance professor Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen arrived at the College.
Today, many students are aware of Dance Prod before they even enroll in Principia, either through older relatives or through Principia’s visiting weekend program. “I’ve been to it once before, because of a visiting weekend, so I know what to expect. But I’m looking forward to it,” freshman Mallory Rosa said.
Preparations for Dance Production span the entire academic year, culminating in performances tomorrow, Friday and Saturday. In the fall, students work with Harper-Wilcoxen to prepare choreography. Students whose choreography is featured in Dance Production are encouraged to take a composition class specifically aimed at teaching and developing students’ knowledge of the elements of choreography. “You have to have done Dance Production at least once. I help you to some degree, if you’re in the class,” Harper-Wilcoxen said of the choreography process. “If you’re not, I’ll meet with you. At the end of the semester before Dance Production, I set up a time by which you have to show me two minutes of your dance fully choreographed.” She accepts about 80 percent of the choreographers who come forward to create dances.
Dancers also must make a major commitment to participate. “At the end of fall semester, we have tryouts. That’s the week before finals, and the week we get back, we get callbacks,” sophomore Bre Benbenek said. “And then we find out what times work for our weekly rehearsals, because every piece you’re in, you have two rehearsals a week. You have to be available for the required all-production rehearsals on Saturday. You also are required to take a technique class.”
Dance Production is a high priority schedule-wise for dancers. This makes the end product all the more polished. Many students, like freshman Taffiny Kablay, have to balance a wide range of commitments along with Dance Prod rehearsals. “It is difficult to balance school and work and dance, but its definitely worth it,” she said. “I’m having the time of my life.”
Although not every year’s Dance Prod has a theme, many of this year’s dances share a common thread of rebirth or recovery from sadness or tragedy. This common denominator led Harper-Wilcoxen to choose the theme of a phoenix, the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes.
In terms of style, the dances vary widely. “We have a Bollywood piece, contemporary ballet, hip-hop, lyrical, modern and an African piece,” explained senior Camille Richardson, one of the featured choreographers. This year’s Dance Production also features two special dances choreographed by John Gardner of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and Cecil Slaughter of Washington University in St. Louis, respectively. The former dance is a special treat for Principia, as it features retired ABT prima ballerina Amanda McKerrow, who also happens to be Gardner’s wife. “[McKerrow is] coming out of retirement to dance this ballet, which is big, big deal,” Harper-Wilcoxen said. The dance came about because, as Harper-Wilcoxen says, “I asked [Gardner] if he would do another ballet for us this year, and he said that he’d love to.” Slaughter’s dance is also unique because she choreographed a solo portion for senior Josie Christian.
Many colleges have annual dance productions, but Principia’s Dance Production stands out for many reasons. Perhaps the biggest defining characteristic of Principia’s Dance Production is that it is primarily choreographed and performed by students. “From what I can tell, most other schools do not let student choreographers produce their own work,” Harper-Wilcoxen said. “They’re not in the big show. The big show in other schools is faculty choreographed. For us to have our main production top-heavy with student choreographers is absolutely unusual.” Richardson agreed, saying, “I like the fact that we get the chance to choreograph our own dances. At my school at home, our teacher would choreograph things for us, and we didn’t have any input.”
Another unique aspect of Dance Prod is its supportive focus and opportunities for growth. Richardson said that prior to her Principia experience, dance productions were often catty and competitive, but, “with Dance Prod at Prin, everybody is supportive. They’re approaching it from the standpoint of giving rather than receiving.” Senior Shelby Tisinai, a former Dance Prod participant, remembers the camaraderie among the dancers. “We were all there to have fun and enjoy dancing, so there wasn’t really any competition.”
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Dance Prod. Perhaps the greatest is the opportunity to watch students expressing the enthusiasm onstage that the rest of the campus has only seen glimpses of. Above all, Harper-Wilcoxen says, “Dance Production is a commitment, and I always tell the dancers that you learn best when something is hard but fun. And I think that’s the nature of dance. You don’t do dance unless you love it. I love the camaraderie of this show. I love how they treat each other. They just have this wonderful sense of family.”