University of Vermont

Dancing to D.C.

New alum among select soloists to take the stage at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Watch a performance of Yablonsky's "Non-Mechanical Tools of Human Advancement."

Dan Yablonsky, a December graduate, was an English major with a minor in ecological agriculture, a cycling enthusiast who has already launched a career promoting sustainable transportation. He arrived at UVM with extreme sports cred – dance training, not so much. And yet Yablonsky, with his own intelligent, quirky, risk-taking style, has helped demonstrate the strong reputation UVM’s mere six-year-old program is building within the college dance community.

Every other year, the New England regional conference for the American College Dance Festival Association (ACDFA) culminates with a “gala concert” of the eight to ten dances that adjudicators consider the best choreography from the 45 or so pieces presented. At every such conference since the launch of dance, a UVM student work has been selected. “That’s an unheard-of track record,” says associate professor of dance Paul Besaw, at least since he’s been attending, which dates back to his own undergraduate days.

But this year, Yablonsky’s piece, "Non-Mechanical Tools of Human Advancement," was chosen not just for the regional gala, but among the top works in the country and with that the opportunity to perform it again at the National College Dance Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Friday, May 25 to Sunday, May 27. Making the accomplishment more notable, the competition is open at the regional and national levels to graduate students, dance faculty and even guest artists. Of the 30 dancers performing nationally, Yablonsky, from North Haledon, N.J., is one of only six who were undergraduate students this year.

Unpacking the process

When it comes to offering interpretation, Yablonsky favors a quote by the great 20th-century ballerina Margot Fonteyn: “I explained it when I danced it.” That fabulous contempt is an easy out that Yablonsky is actually too gracious for and that "Non-Mechanical Tools of Human Advancement" is perhaps too obscure for, despite its acclaim.

According to Besaw, the piece was not without minor debate over whether it should properly be labeled performance art or dance, a distinction that Besaw finds meritless.

“The central physical question he has is that his head is in a football helmet and he keeps falling off balance because his head keeps dragging him down to the floor,” says Besaw. “I’d say that he has this key, central movement question that everything else revolves around and for me, if you have a central kind of movement ingredient, you can call it dance.”

Yablonsky will tell you that imbalance comes from what he sees as human advancement in terms of technology and mechanization beyond what we need. “We’ve arrived at something that is nearly chaos,” he says.

Besaw’s mention of the helmet is telling about the dance as well – Yablonsky needs it. “He’s really physical. In my choreography class he would solve creative problems with this sort of attack,” Besaw says. “The thing that he lands on is this point of risk where he has a structure and inside the structure the things that he does look extremely risky, extreme sports-like.”

Yablonsky also created the sound score, which Besaw believes is what took the dance to the top. “I’m totally biased, but I think it’s brilliant,” he says. “Here is this smart guy who’s got this way with language – he’s created this running commentary that’s very thoughtful and at the same time you’ve got this really amazing, crazy, physical action, and then there is this other element which is that he’s sort of stripped down and vulnerable in a way too. So it’s got different layers to it and I think that’s what takes it from a cool piece to being just really incredible, sophisticated work.”

Arts and influence

Yablonsky’s “way with language” meshes with how he likens dance to his English major. Both, he says, are active. “You don’t have to get sweaty to read a book, but the thought and the unpacking and unpacking and repacking of a message in that art is really similar,” Yablonsky says. “It was really cool to see all the similarities between dance and literature, the different motives and ideas that are conveyed with it.”

Having taken another English major to the conference this year, Besaw sees it too. “There was something to the way they both could interpret – pull apart and put back together – taking dance toward its natural poetic end,” he says.

Since the university currently has a minor but not a major in dance, Besaw has been fascinated watching how students bring their main area of study into his classes. Last year, he says, he took two senior psychology majors and one neuroscience major to ACDFA. “They were all great researchers,” he says. “They understood the idea of a laboratory and they brought that sensibility to making work. I just loved seeing their research brains helping them out in the context of making dances.”

But if Besaw and his colleagues, who he calls the best ever – Clare Byrne, Paula Higa, Selene Colburn – are inspired by what their students bring to the classroom, they are nurturing their young program into something that seems to be transformative for students.

“Paul supported me 100 percent with this crazy idea,” says Yablonsky, who has been asked to teach a master dance class at the University of Pittsburgh, the city where he now lives. “Paul and Clare and Selene are all so innovative and committed. It is quite a thing to emerge into dance with such accomplished people. They set a climate that encourages students to be as creative as the mind can get. It’s so open.”

So Yablonsky came into dance willing to take risks, emotional and physical. And, he says, he learned a thing or two about technique. Watch the dance video and it’s hard not to think how painful it looks.

Asked if he thinks he learned how to perform it without hurting himself he says, “Yeah, a non-mechanical tool of human advancement: practice.”