Student dancers blend emotion with intensity

Victor Paul

In the midst of bodies spinning on stage, a mix of outstretched arms and extended legs, under bright lights in a darkened theater, Laura Selle is acutely aware of her environment.
She says the flow of music piped in from above tells her when to move; muscle memory of rehearsed motions tells her what to move. To Selle, this is her ideal place.
“In performance, you’re always on your toes,” she said. “It’s a place I don’t find until I’m on stage and I feel the audience as a presence.”
Last weekend, Selle performed with 32 other University dancers before a four-day crowd of 940 people in the University Dance Theater’s annual spring concert, “Women at Work.”
Selle is a dance student at the University, one quarter shy of graduation. At 21 years old, she has danced for more than half her life and expects to dance as long as her body allows.
“There’s always tornadoes that wind me into the dances,” Selle said. “I want to perform. I could teach, but not just teaching little kids how to move. I want to teach them to be creative.”
The ultimate reward for a dancer is the accomplishment of a perfect performance, said Ellie Laser, a senior University dancer.
“It’s fun to be committed to something with seven or eight other people who are just as committed,” Laser said. “You find wonderful relationships.”
Being able to work with different people in each dance piece involves a high level of trust, faith that dancers would not drop each other or forget moves, Laser said. Selle added that dancers ultimately need to trust themselves.
“You can’t control what’s going to happen on stage,” Laser said. “The only control you have is your own moves. If you screw up, if you forget, just run off-stage. It’s modern dance, no one will notice.”
Dance can be viewed across a spectrum of styles, from a theatrical, emotional style to one that is movement based, the dancers said. The choreographer’s and dancer’s intent in a piece and their emphasis determine where it lands on that spectrum.
“Every dancer dances so differently,” said Kari Matter, a senior dance major. “It’s hard as a dancer inside to see what everyone else is doing. This gives it such personality.”
More than four years of sharing classes and shows, the three have developed what they describe as a sisterly bond.
In their most recent performance, the dancers, teamed with six locally-based choreographers with national reputations, choreographed five modern dance pieces.
“Laura, Kari and Ellie have a maturity to them,” said Paula Mann, a University dance instructor and choreographer of one of the pieces presented at the concert. “They have great commitment to the work. Some dancers are just hungry to succeed at every level. I really treasure working with them.”
The burden a dancer feels does not solely come from the expectant gaze of a paying audience: Dancers need to be able to meld to a choreographer’s style and need to problem solve for themselves when bits of choreography do not work out, said Mann.
“Guest choreographers that come here are often astounded with the level of dance here,” said Linda Shapiro of the University dance program. “Especially because the students are undergraduates.”
Most University dancers spend their time in class and rehearsals in baggy pants and oversized shirts. Although comfort and ease of motion is one reason for loose fitting clothing, the dancers said they find it hard to look at their bodies all the time and not become self-conscious of the way their bodies seem.
“When you have to look at your body every day, that’s bound to have an effect on you,” Shapiro said. “You can’t not be aware of your body.”
“Dance is not so much about people looking the same,” Selle said. “It’s about your body and how far you need to push your body. It’s how committed you are.”
In early March, Selle and Matter will present at the American College Dance Festival a dance they have choreographed. This year, the regional event is held in Normal, Ill.
In May, Selle will perform in “On the Edge,” a collaborative performance between University theater and dance.