The University of Vermont's music department took a big step last fall - a dance step. That is, it finally added an academic dance program to its curriculum. Previously, wannabe movers and shakers had to groove their thang in P.E. "We're developing courses for dance to be a minor, and maybe a major down the road," says premier dance faculty member Paul Besaw. "That's new to the College of Arts & Sciences." It also portends more public performances for Burlington dance fans.
The assistant prof, a New Hampshire native who left California State at Sacramento for UVM, has wasted no time choreographing a creative collaboration. Besaw and associate music professor/composer Michael Hopkins have been developing a dance-theater work entitled "Three Wonderers Down Yonder." The 35-minute piece showcases this Thursday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the UVM Recital Hall in a program called "Composers & Choreographers: An Evening of Original Music & Dance."
Few of the performers are students, however. On the contrary, "I wanted to work with area dancers with more experience," says Besaw, 40. "I found Sarah McMahon, Tiffany Rhynard, a Middlebury resident in dance - I knew her through graduate school - and she introduced me to Kara Golux."
Also on the program are a solo, "Green Piece," by Rhynard, with live original music by pianist and Midd guest faculty Lei Liang; a Golux solo, "Waving Good-bye," with music by Norwegian composer Helge Lien; and a new duet by Besaw entitled "through," which is performed by UVM dance students.
It's not easy to explain the meaning of a dance, and "Three Wonderers" seems particularly abstract. "I was exploring the idea of three figures who sort of fall into this space accidentally and discover a fantastic realm," Besaw says. "It's largely three solos, and then they come together. From the concept to the way I work in my process, [that's] why I wanted more experienced dancers - it's such a joy."
Each woman discovers different things in this imagined "world," but it's pretty subtle, Besaw notes. That's where the music comes in. Hidden under area rugs on the stage are "tap tiles," which produce sound when stepped on. "The sounds have been preprogrammed, but when the dancers make the sounds is partially open," Besaw explains. "Nothing is totally open or absolutely predetermined."
Sound like an artier version of Dance Dance Revolution? Not quite. Those preprogrammed sounds were initially individual ostinato patterns which were played by Hopkins on a double bass, and then loaded into a computer and looped repeatedly to create multiple overlapping sounds. "I can layer up to nine different double bass patterns on top of one another," he says. "Then John can process them using any number of effects." That's UVM music prof John Mantegna, the electronics engineer for both composing and performance. As for the double bass, Hopkins acknowledges it usually has an accompaniment role, but here it stands alone. "I think people are going to be surprised by all the things the instrument is capable of," he suggests.
But "I can't say enough about the interaction of live electronics," Hopkins adds. When a dancer steps on a tap tile, "it randomly selects one of the ostinato patterns - you get this foreshadowing of something I haven't played yet, or something that repeats what I've played." Despite the random element, there is an arc to the music over the seven sections of the dance: It starts out simply, increases in layered complexity, then tapers off again. At its peak is a "kind of nuts, crazy-sounding" episode called the "Lobster Quadrille," Hopkins reveals. Intrigued yet?
While there are "planned relationships between the music and the dance," says Besaw, suffice it to say that "Three Wonderers" ain't Broadway. Check out the adventurous debut of UVM dance this Thursday. Bonus: It's free.