Nine years have passed since Heather Cairl ’09 performed Dirthead, a solo piece she created as a UVM dance student. When she agreed to reprise the work as part of the UVM Dance Program’s 10th anniversary celebration, she worried she might not have time to rehearse.
But after listening to a few bars of the music, it all came back. “When you put that much work into a piece it becomes part of your muscular memory,” she said.
Cairl was trained in dance growing up in Sunderland, Mass., though she hadn’t yet explored it as an expressive medium.
“My real dance personality didn’t emerge until I started at UVM,” Cairl recalls. “Paul Besaw’s choreography class was a huge part of that. Paul is such incredible teacher—he really inspired me and pushed me to discover more about dance.”
Cairl came to see dance as a way of exploring questions about life, like coping with being away from home for the first time. That is the central theme of Dirthead, which was chosen as a featured work by the American College Dance Association New England Gala Concert in 2008.
“Dirthead was the name of a pet chicken I had as a kid. When I put the piece together I had these images in my head about playing in the back yard, trying things out and failing and trying again. The repetition that came out of that evolved into a polished piece.”
Cairl majored in film and television studies at UVM and pursued dance as an independent study. She joined the Orchesis Dance Company, a student-run group her freshman year, and began performing with independent dance organizations in Burlington.
“Dance was always sort of a hobby for me. After joining the company and connecting with the dance community in Burlington, it became a huge part of my life.”
Dan Yablonsky ’11 is another alum of the dance program who returns with his creation “Non-mechanical Tools of Human Advancement,” also selected by the New England regional conference for the ACDFA. In addition, Yablosnky was invited to perform the work at the National College Dance Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in May of 2012. The annual competition is open to graduate students, dance faculty and even guest artists—of the 30 dancers performing nationally, Yablonsky was one of only six undergraduates asked to perform.
He returns to the stage this week not as a performer but as director and choreographer. Just days before the conference in DC, Yablonsky was hit by a drunk driver while biking in Pittsburgh where he had moved after his December graduation.
“I was in a coma for three weeks and in the hospital for five months,” he says. “It took me a year to walk unassisted. I am so privileged to be alive today, with this opportunity.”
“Non-mechanical Tools of Human Advancement” has its roots in Yablonsky’s initial understandings of his identity as a white male, a concept he had only begun to seriously think about during his senior year at UVM. The revised performance features two current UVM dance students Molley Kaye ’16 and Ben Liebman ’17. The trio have collaborated since October, investing hundreds of hours to reimagine the piece.
Yablonsky’s physical setbacks have not dulled his passion for justice and commitment to dance as a medium for social change. The revised “Non-mechanical Tools” deals with the same themes of power and privilege, informed through the lens of his deeply traumatic experience and partnership with two other performers.
After each performance, they plan to collect names of organizations actively working for justice, along with attendee's email addresses, so that they can share resources and tools helpful in the struggle to end structural oppression—a tangible outcome of the performance.
“What we’re doing at the end is charging people with taking initiative to understand and educate ourselves about power and society. I feel like I was given this opportunity as a white male in this position in life—how do I create something productive? What’s the most productive thing we can do on stage?”