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Beyond technique: New York City choreographer Sidra Bell challenges University Dancers with new work



‘Dance is about the relationship to your own body, and the relationship of the body and space and the relationship of different bodies to each other,” says Sidra Bell a New York City choreographer who has created a new piece for concerts featuring dancers from the area’s Five Colleges.

The 22-minute long piece, “at the bazaar,” was commissioned by the Five College Dance Department and will be performed by the University Dancers Dec. 6 and 7 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The piece was performed earlier at Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges.

Bell is a graduate of Yale University and Purchase College, State University of New York. Her previous compositions have received positive reviews from The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her company, Sidra Bell Dance New York, has performed throughout the United States and internationally.

The choreographer visited the Smith College campus in the spring to auditions student dancers for the new work. She returned for a week-long residency in late August, when she worked intensively with the 22 dancers chosen to perform the piece. Rehearsals took place over the next three months under the guidance of Paul Dennis, a member of the UMass dance faculty and director of the University Dancers. Bell returned over the weekends of Sept. 28 and Oct. 26 to polish the dance and make final adjustments.

Bell is no stranger to working with college students. For the past three years, she has been a master lecturer at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Although she has worked with both students and professional dancers, Bell says, she approaches both groups the same way.

“For me there’s no difference in what I’m bringing,” Bell said. “I bring my own curiosities to the studio, and I expect the dancers to meet those curiosities.”

She’s particularly interested, she says, in the concept of bodily form within dance, and uses improvisation with her dancers to create the movement. Because the students were split into two casts (one for the University Dancers concert, one for the others), Bell says the improvisations resulted in different movement being created within the overall context of the piece.

“You’ll have totally different experiences in each edition,” she said, “even performance to performance.”

A different approach

Most of the rehearsals for the piece have been run by Dennis who first met Bell while studying for his master’s degree at Purchase College. Bell had completed the same degree earlier.

“When I saw Sidra’s classes it was so unfamiliar to me,” he said. “I was both enthralled, and, for want of a better word, stunned.” What most surprised him, he says, was the high level of personal interpretation of movement that Bell requires of her students. It was very different from the technique-based experiences with dance that he was used to.

Before earning his degree at Purchase, Dennis studied at The Juilliard School in New York City and was a member of the Limon Dance Company, a major modern dance company.

“My professional and artistic career is much more along the lines of classic, modern dance,” he said. “There are cardinal modern dance techniques that have been around since the early 20th century.”

While Bell includes those principals of movement in her work, Dennis says, the psychology of the movements and the form she creates are much more important to her than technique.

“It’s so much more than learning the steps and learning the phrases,” he said. “You’re experiencing what goes into the framework of the gesture.”

Space and movement

Bell says the new work “explores the human experience via form.” To create it she played with different angles and levels of the body, and explorations of space and how space informs movement. The dance features several themes, she added, including human development.

“We did one day when we worked on this idea of baby, to toddler to animal improv,” she said. “I just wanted to play with that idea.” Other aspects of the composition, such as the use as a tennis ball, has come from the improvisation-based nature of rehearsal.

Bell explained that she was rolling out a tight muscle with the ball, when it occurred to her to put it in the piece. She likened a ball in play with the experience of performing a long piece of dance.

“Once you’re onstage you set a ball in motion and you have to keep the energy going.”

In addition to creating and learning movement, Bell says she calls upon her dancers to explore their personal feelings while in the moment of performance, and use those feelings to inform their movement.

Melanie Colvin, a dancer from Smith College, said she didn’t know what to expect going into the experience.

“It’s been very challenging,” she said.“It takes a lot of mental energy and power.”

Because Bell asks her dancers to personally interpret the movements they will do, without much instruction from her, the students say they have to rely on one another, and the close relationships that they have developed by working together during their twice-weekly rehearsals.

“Working with Sidra Bell has introduced the meaning of community. ... Both casts were constantly working together,” said Niki Farahani, a UMass dancer.

“We understand each other in a different way,” said Prakruti Nanda, a Mount Holyoke dancer.

Dennis says that one of his aims as a teacher is to expose students to various styles of dance and choreography, like Bell’s.

“I want my dancers to have the most progressive thinking about their artistry. ... If Sidra represents that, I want that for them,” he said. Bell’s work with the Five College dancers also helps increase the department’s exposure, Dennis added.

“We are the best-kept secret, not only in the Valley, but in the region,” he said. “Our dancers get to play and perform in the same circles as some of the top conservatories in the nation.”

The UMass dance concert will be held Dec. 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. in Bowker Auditorium on the UMass campus. Tickets cost $14; $5 for students, seniors and children. To reserve, call 545-2511 or visit fac.umass.edu.