Release Date: 03-27-2008
The costume suggests at once clown and impish little girl. In a yellow baby doll dress, pink ruffled bloomers, and bright blue tights, long blond hair twisted in a ponytail high above one ear, senior Heather Cairl somehow looks every bit herself. Her diminutive size helps, despite muscular legs that hold her body in a backbend while her head rests on the ground. Cairl is rehearsing her solo for the recital, “Dancing Uphill,” March 27, 28, and 29 at 8 p.m. in Mann Gymnasium, Trinity Campus. This is the first presentation featuring student performers and choreography since the new academic dance program launched in fall 2006. But it is not the first time Cairl has danced “Dirthead.”
With the encouragement of Paul Besaw, assistant dance professor, Cairl performed it for adjudication at the American College Dance Festival Association New England Conference in February. In this dance that Cairl called a “silly, fun piece,” a memory of playing in her backyard when she was young, Besaw saw something unique. “It’s unpretentious, unaffected, a sincere, straightforward approach,” he says of Cairl’s choreography. “In today’s world where everything is so polished and sort of overdone, I think this piece is just right, very natural and sincere.”
Danced to the lullaby strains of the “Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Cairl evokes a dreamy child’s contentment alone at play, tumbling, starting over, tumbling, starting over, the dancer-to-be utterly unselfconscious. Festival judges concurred with Besaw, articulating for Cairl the insights and images they saw embedded in her choreography: a captivating “removal of effort,” a “connection between the spectacle and the vulnerable,” a piece that “made me ask questions about dance that I didn’t know I wanted to ask.”
“Dirthead” (the curious title borrowed from one of the chickens Cairl’s family raised, named for the brown spot on it’s crown) was selected as one of the ten best in conference to be performed again at the closing concert. In the company of colleges with longstanding dance programs, including Harvard and Middlebury, this was a major honor for both Cairn and UVM’s young program.
“She just naturally floats toward interesting ideas and cool movement material that’s inventive and unique to who she is and how she can move,” Besaw says of Cairl, a film major who’s applying for an individualized minor in dance. “It’s really simple and then all of a sudden she does these great things with her body that many (dancers) can’t. There’s a lot of raw talent to it. She’s fearless.”
Dancing the line
Of course it’s not all Cairl. The recital features two other solos, a duet, and several group dances — some of which she’s also in — and draws on the work of notable guest artists including assistant music professor Patricia Julien, Jan Van Dyke, professor and chair of dance at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as well as students and faculty from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, with whom the university has an ongoing artistic exchange.
As expected, the new dance program, which is working toward offering a minor, has drawn talented students from majors across colleges, young women and men who have danced through high school and seek a serious environment to follow their passion. The program is currently focused entirely on modern forms and thus “Dancing Uphill” has a dynamic, contemporary thrust that offers a sense of excitement and also a challenge to an audience presented with titles like “The Hose Nose.”
“Contemporary dance,” Besaw says, “isn’t looking to go with the mainstream. It’s dance that can be beautiful but it can also really question, ask the audience questions.” “The Hose Nose” began as a prop study junior Emma Rogers created for Besaw’s choreography class and then evolved into something more. She dances in red rubber boots with a garden hose but juxtaposes that levity against lovely, sensual piano etudes. In Besaw’s interpretation the hose becomes a lover, a friend, an enemy, a mother and she can’t decide whether to keep it or get rid of it.
Cairl’s favorite dance in the production, a risky work choreographed by Besaw, is “Bump,” performed by eight UVM students with music by Patricia Julien, a collaboration which thrills Besaw. “That’s what’s great about being in the music department,” he says. “There are collaborations to be had literally in every direction if you just go knock on somebody’s door.”
In “Bump” he uses four groups of dancers — two duets, a trio, and a soloist to explore ideas about things coexisting and inevitably running into each other, pushing each other. The music is performed live by Julien’s jazz quartet and even the musicians take their places by walking across stage, pushing their way through the mass of dancers. They play improvisational jazz that requires students to dance on instrumental cue. “It’s not preset,” Besaw explains. “The dancers have this material and they have to figure out when to do it based on how the music goes. They have to be in the moment listening for what section the music is in so they know what to do. Sometimes dance can be kind of flat because it’s so predetermined. This does kind of wake you up.” Even Cairl says it’s exciting, but scary because you never know what’s going to happen.
But that’s what makes the recital — and this new dance program — a chance worth taking. “It’s cool in a university environment,” Besaw says. “I think, in the spirit of research, everything can be an experiment of sorts. Everything doesn’t have to succeed, but you should absolutely learn from everything you try.”
Admission to the recital is $7, cash or check only. To reserve seats call (802) 656-2295.
See more photos from rehearsal on the view's Flickr page.