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Upcoming Graduate Dance Thesis Concert Showcases Student Works

"Body Voice: Dance Rewired" Features Leslie Hale, Tawanda Chabikwa and Gregory King

by Chrysta Brown (B.A. Dance '10)

It’s the end of the year, with Commencement less than 40 days away, and many graduating students are feeling a mild sense of panic over everything they need to accomplish in the next few weeks: essays, term papers, quizzes, tests, exams, and storing memories that will last a lifetime. Imagine adding a thesis concert to that long list of things to do. For an example of how to deal with all of the responsibilities of life as an SMU student, one need look no further than the M.F.A. Graduate Dance students, who were given four weeks to choreograph and produce a full evening of dance.

The graduate students, Leslie Hale, Tawanda Chabikwa, and Gregory King, are taking a different approach to dance in both their choreography and the thesis concert itself – hence the concert title, Body Voice: Dance Rewired. “Body voice,” Tawanda says. “It’s the reason I dance. It’s what I call a ‘preverb,’ a place that came before and comes after language.”

The rewiring refers to the community involvement this year’s grads wanted to emphasize, and the change in the structure of the concert began with that. They will be teaching a series of master classes in local schools and studios and also participated in the 14th annual Dance for the Planet Festival in North Dallas. This year’s festival featured the talents of So You Think You Can Dance finalists Janette Manrara and Jason Glover, and world famous flamenco artist Maria Juncal. King says that the idea of taking dance to people is intriguing. “I love that idea of going out and showing and experiencing and sharing,” he says.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is, “What will they be sharing?”

Typically the grad students produce three pieces, two original works and one restaged piece based on an original notated score. Keeping to the theme of their concert, this year’s graduate class chose to do things differently by working all together to restage the same piece, Leni Williams’ Sweet in the Morning, on an undergraduate student. As for their individual works, each one took their inspiration from life experiences.

Leslie Hale is originally from Amarillo, Texas, and came back to the state after some time away for college and dancing professionally in New York. “Dance is a way to get my voice heard,” she says reflectively. At first, Leslie appears quiet, but she has a lot of valuable information to share and a lot to say. Her biggest opportunity to do so is through her non-majors ballet class. She loves to teach. She loves seeing the increasing level of progress of her students.

“I leave the class exhausted but happy... and the students always leave with a smile on their face,” she says. As if on cue, a former student waves and the two of them have a brief conversation about the happenstances of life.

The inspiration for Leslie’s pieces came from two very different stages of her life. The first piece is entitled “Equilibrium,” based on the book Number the Stars. “I love the title,” she says. “The idea of letting all things be for the sake of peace.” “Equilibrium” explores the realization of change and manipulation and the journey toward surrender and compassion. Her choreography juxtaposes grounded and elevated movement. “It’s the idea of you being the connection between heaven and Earth,” she says.

Her second piece, “Current Scenes,” reaches back to her past as a 19-year-old girl in Japan. She chose a piece of electronic music that evoked memories and images of her time there – elements of isolation, film, comedy, horror, roller skates, rainbows, unicorns, the way the Japanese children danced. The music is fluid and sensual and then morphs into something robotic, and she structured her choreography to follow that transformation.

“I find it fascinating how ‘unhuman’ people can be,” she says. Leslie has two quotes posted in her house. The first is by Nietzsche: “One must still have chaos in oneself in order to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” The second, “Our truest lives are when we are in dreams awake,” is by Thoreau. She smiles as she shares the revelation that the two quotes in her house are represented in the two works she is putting on stage.

“Ragada! Mira!” Anyone who has walked through the convoluted halls of the Meadows building knows that call, in its most genuine form, can only belong to Gregory King. “My time here has been about doing what someone wants me to do. That’s not necessarily bad...but I need everyone to step back and watch me do my thing,” he says with a smile. “I am a representation of SMU but I am also a representation of myself and my beliefs.” He pauses, exclaims “Oh!,” and then with a seriousness only he could muster adds, “that was fierce!” And then he laughs. Gregory came to SMU from Jamaica, with an extended layover in New York. The ideas behind his pieces come from a desire to honor his heritage and life experiences.

Gregory’s first piece, “Strange Invisble Perfume,” is a celebration in honor of his mother, who has never seen him dance. “I wanted to use the strength and memory of her in Jamaica as a single mom,” he says. Those who attended the Fall Brown Bag performance saw the preliminary stages of the piece. Gregory changed the music and reworked some of the themes, “I didn’t want it to be melancholy and solemn,” he says. “I wanted to emphasize the joyous moments.”

Gregory’s second piece is called “Spit.” “My life inspired ‘Spit,’ ” he says. “As a black gay man it is hard because everything presented to me in dance is about the male/female relationship, because that is the norm” - he pauses as if trying to find a way to voice his frustration - “but that’s not normal for me.” Gregory says that his piece is about not only homosexual relationships but also the social perception of them. “To ask someone not to be themselves is wrong.” He sees society regulating how individuals should be as a degrading act comparable to spitting in their faces. “Hence the title,” he says. “Spit.” (Note: “Spit” includes strong language and sexually suggestive movement and is not appropriate for children.)

Zimbabwe native Tawanda Chabikwa describes himself as “a passing breath.” “I work in the shadows,” he says. “I come from a very different place culturally,” he adds, not speaking of Zimbabwe but of his own individual culture. He goes on to say that by being at SMU he has been able to see the inner workings of the academic side of dance. “SMU has helped me by letting me in. I have learned a lot from the curriculum.” Tawanda’s two pieces, inspired by his Zimbabwean heritage, are entitled “Dunhu ReMhondoro” and “Blanco Never Cried.”

He says the first piece deals with identity. The title is based on the belief that one’s ancestors are able to walk on the same plane and when they want, they walk the Earth by inhabiting lions. “Dunhu ReMhondoro means neighborhood. It’s a dangerous place,” he says, “and ironically, a common phrase used to describe the journey of life.”

His second piece, “Blanco Never Cried,” is “a dynamic sort of piece,” he says. He is working with the juxtaposition of inclusion and exclusion as well as how one makes the decision to take either action. “It is an artistic response to the xenophobic attacks against Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, Kenya, and some European countries,” he says. Tawanda says he hopes the audience walks away having been exposed to something different and, at best, an idea. The specifics of such an idea are open ended.

“It could be at the most physical level or the deeper level at which the body works and speaks,” he says, “when they’ve learned something in a non-lingual way that moves and inspires them or lets them realize they are not alone and that they are okay.”

Whether the pieces are inspired by hatred or love, cowardice or bravery, whether they come from Jamaica, Japan, or Zimbabwe, these dance grads seem to have one particular theme in mind. When asked how they wanted the SMU community to remember them, they focused on the idea of validation. “I would like my dancers to remember a process that gives them value and worth,” says Tawanda, adding that he wanted to be remembered like a breath.

Leslie says that the most rewarding part of her SMU experience has been to see the growth of her students. “My life says, ‘If I can get through this, so can you,’ ” she says. By using her past and present struggles she is able to empower her students and force them to dig deeper within themselves.

“I am valid,” Gregory says simply.

Body Voice: Dance Rewired will be held April 30 – May 1 at 8:00 p.m. and May 2 at 2:00 p.m. in the Bob Hope Theatre. For tickets or more information, call 214-768-2787 or buy online

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