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Watch them soar

March 10, 2009


University dance students rehearsing on stage

U students rehearsing last fall for the dance program's offering of Missa Brevis in February.

Photo: V. Paul Virtucio, courtesy of University Dance Program

Nine students chosen to perform with prestigious dance company on Northrop stage March 19

By Pauline Oo

When choreographer José Limón toured Poland with his New York-based dance company in 1957, little did he know how much the landscape of rubble-strewn cities and people still reeling from the ravages of World War II would move him. He created Missa Brevis in response to war and people's resilience, and the following year it premiered in a bombed-out church in Budapest.

On March 19, nine University of Minnesota dance students will join the Limón Dance Company at Northrop Auditorium on the Twin Cities campus for this stirring and much praised piece. For most, it will be their first time dancing with a professional company.

"I'm ecstatic," says Lauren Baker of the chance to train and perform with the Limón dancers. "I'm graduating in May, so I'm looking forward to having this sort of experience to help build my confidence to go into the professional world."

Set to music by Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, Missa Brevis, which means "short mass" in Latin, is a tribute to the human spirit conveyed through movement. It begins with a group of dancers huddled defiantly together in an expression of solidarity and courage. One dancer, however, watches from the sidelines. The group eventually breaks up into quartets, trios, and solos, and, ultimately, all the dancers, including the lone figure, return to the stage as a community united by hope and perseverance. Throughout, they perform Limón's signature movements, which emphasize dramatic expression, nuanced and expansive movement, and the human soul.

Baker says she has learned a great deal about the company and the Limón technique since September from visiting artist Sarah Stackhouse and University associate professor of dance Carl Flink and his wife Emilie Plauché Flink. Stackhouse, a former principal dancer with Limón, came to the Twin Cities campus in the fall to stage Missa Brevis with a full student cast. The Flinks, both of whom were Limón company dancers, served as rehearsal directors. Twenty-two student dancers performed Missa Brevis as part of the dance program's annual Dance Revolution concert in February.

"For the [dance program] production we did not have live music, but this time around for Northrop we will be having a choral group," says Baker, whom Stackhouse had picked, along with eight lucky others, from the student cast of 22. "I'm looking forward to that. [The live music is] going to add that extra challenge of really having to pay attention, because it's not going to be the same every time at our rehearsals or on performance night." Singers from the Oratorio Society of Minnesota will perform the choral score.

The students started working with the company this week, and they'll continue to plug away right up to the day of the show. "The Saturday [at the beginning] of spring break we'll dance from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and that Monday to Thursday of spring break we'll dance for eight hours a day, with the performance on Thursday night," says University senior Jeremy Bensussan.

Did you know?

Students majoring in dance call their teachers by their first names—because that's fairly common in a dance setting, says U senior Jeremy Bensussan.

A typical dance major has ballet three to five times a week, followed by jazz twice a week, and modern dance four times a week. "Each class lasts one-and-a-half hours," says Bensussan. "Of course, between these technique classes we also engage in courses to make us think critically of the nature, origin, and personal expression of dance. These include history, anatomy, and dance composition, as well as many optional courses like yoga, Pilates, dance and popular culture, and tap dancing."

But he isn't complaining. Bensussan supplemented his earlier lessons with Stackhouse and the Flinks with a weeklong stint at the José Limón Institute in New York over winter break.

"What Sarah offered us were refined ideas to bring the Missa Brevis choreography to life—[for example, the ideas] of tension and release, lightness of the body and heaviness, never finding complete uprightness (a large contrast to ballet), and the impulse of movement coming from the center of the body and radiating outwards," he explains. "I wanted more ... what this trip gave me more than anything was the ability to break down the choreography into its fundamental parts and build it from the ground up."

The Missa Brevis performance at Northrop coincides with the 2009 North-Central Regional American College Dance Festival Association conference (March 18-22), which the University Dance Program is hosting for the first time. About 400 faculty and students from other dance programs will converge on the Twin Cities campus for master classes, film screenings, impromptu concerts, and the Limón show.

"It's just a dream; I never thought I would have this opportunity to dance with the company, and [additionally] to perform in front of my peers from all over," says Baker, also president of the U Student Dance Coalition, a group that organizes lectures and workshops to help dance majors further learn and grow as artists. "I love being on the stage. It's where I'm happiest."


Missa Brevis is part of a three-dance program that begins at 7:30 p.m. March 9 in Northrop Auditorium. The Limón Dance Company will also perform Into My Heart's House, inspired by Jóse Limón's love for the music of J.S. Bach, and The Traitor, Limón's take on the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. Tickets, which include a preshow interview with company director Carla Mazwell, are $31 to $55; buy online or call 612-624-2345.

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