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School of Performance to perform Cunningham’s 1973 piece “Changing Steps” at Ryerson Dances
Ryerson Dances, the School of Performance’s yearly showcase, will feature the work of one of the most influential figures in modern dance history.
The showcase, performed by third- and fourth-year students, is comprised of four unique works. One of them is American choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham’s 1973 piece “Changing Steps.” In 2019, the dance community is celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.
“We are the only dance training program in Canada invited to present a Cunningham work during the worldwide Centennial year celebration,” said Vicki St. Denys, director of the performance dance program who is also serving as producer and one of the choreographers for the show.
Dylan Crossman, from the Cunningham Trust, joined the production early in September to start the work on “Changing Steps” with a group of 14 dancers.
The Cunningham Trust was established in 2000 to hold and administer the rights to Cunningham’s works after his death. The Trust works with licensees to bring his choreography to the public, from production companies to educational institutions, like Ryerson.
Crossman, who is based in New York, worked with the dancers almost every day for two weeks to stage the piece.
“Changing Steps” first premièred in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is based on Cunningham’s unique training concepts. All sections are separate and comprised of solos, duets, trios, quartets and quintets.
“It can be put together in any way, and can be layered in any way. What I’m doing with Ryerson, there’s never (just) a single thing happening on stage…it’s always two or three things,” said Crossman.
What viewers should expect to see is a product of the choices Crossman has made and recreated based on the dancer’s ability, the size of the group and the amount of time he had to work with the dancers.
“None of it has to do with a particular narrative that I created. There is drama, because the work is so hard…there’s always drama anytime you put two human beings in a given space in a given time,” he said. However, the piece is not driven by a central theme.
”There’s not like, the happy section. Or this piece is about love, this piece is about loss. It’s very abstract,” said Crossman. “Merce’s work was very much movement for the sake of movement.”
Crossman said he enjoyed bringing Cunningham’s unique principles to Ryerson dancers. “The students have never really experienced Cunningham’s technique,” he said. And while the techniques can be challenging, there’s growth in the struggle.
“It’s a technique that is very rewarding. It is so hard, but once you give into it, once you realize there is no way you can be perfect, you actually start to enjoy the challenges,” said Crossman.
Indeed, the students worked hard to master the choreography. “The Ryerson students were really open. They worked really hard. Even over the course of just two weeks…I really saw them change.”
The remaining three pieces in Ryerson Dances are choreographed by Vicki St. Denys, Jera Wolfe and Alysa Pires.
St. Denys’s selection is a classical jazz piece in every sense of the word, she said. “It’s vibrant and colourful; it’s a reimagining of my work ‘Brubeck,’ which was originally choreographed in 2013.”
Wolfe, currently based in Winnipeg, is a choreographer and associate artist with Red Sky Performance. He choreographed a deeply personal contemporary piece.
The last selection is choreographed by Pires, an honours BFA graduate from the Ryerson School of Performance. Her piece comes “not with a bang, but with a whimper.” It is a contemporary piece about climate change.
Ryerson Dances premièred Nov. 19 and will run until Nov. 23 at the Ryerson Theatre.
Correction, Nov. 19, 2019: A previous version of the story stated that the showcase was comprised of four unique works by American choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham. In fact, Cunningham’s 1973 piece “Changing Steps” is one of four pieces that was performed at the showcase. The remaining three pieces in Ryerson Dances are choreographed by Vicki St. Denys, Jera Wolfe and Alysa Pires.