The Collegian
Tuesday, January 31, 2023

New artistic director takes dancers to 'Next' level

The University Dancers will perform their 26th annual dance concert entitled "Next," at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Newly appointed artistic director Anne Van Gelder, who has been the assistant director of dance at the University of Richmond for 12 years, was named to her position this academic year by Dancers founder and former artistic director, Myra Daleng.

After years of dedication to Dancers, Daleng decided it was time to retire and pursue other paths, Van Gelder said.

Van Gelder, a University of Utah graduate with a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance, said she knew from a young age that she wanted to stay in the dancing field.

"Through dance I found my passion and a way to make a living," she said.

The title of this year's spring performance, "Next," refers to what Van Gelder's new position means for the company, she said.

"New things are happening in the dance department that will impact where the company goes next," Van Gelder said. "It's evocative of curiosity; a look forward."

What the dancers and choreographers brought to the company changed each year, she said. As for her personal preference of dance style: "I have none. Good dance is good dance."

Nationally and internationally renowned choreographers came to instruct the dancers throughout the year, Van Gelder said.

Former William Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt dancer Francesca Harper created a piece for the University Dancers about female empowerment and unity.

Although Harper was seven-months pregnant at the time, she demonstrated many of the dance moves herself, Van Gelder said.

When choreographers come, Van Gelder serves as a rehearsal director for the performance, which means she continues the rehearsals after the choreographer leaves.

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Choreographers are in residence for approximately one week, she said.

Harper's piece in particular was a wonderful bonding experience for the dancers, Van Gelder said.

Harper asked the dancers if they felt they needed to be empowered.

Many dancers referred to classes they were taking and texts that they had studied in the past, Van Gelder said.

"It became more than just learning a dance," she said. "Dancers dance because they have to, not because they want to."

Some members of the University Dancers aren't even majoring or minoring in dance.

Many students choose Richmond simply because of the great opportunity they would have to dance at the university, she said.

The dancers were passionate, which was what enabled them to give back in ways that couldn't be described in words, she said.

Senior dancer Nicole Rahl said she knew she wanted to be involved with the on-campus dance company because it provided her with an opportunity to dance at a higher level and to work with world-renowned choreographers.

Rahl has choreographed a piece for "Next" titled, "(Un)conditional."

A duet, Rahl said, "(Un)conditional" is about the decision to walk away from something and find your own. It's about how we impact one another."

University Dancers had provided Rahl with a family away from home, she said.

Having spent the majority of her time building intense relationships with the other dancers and teachers, she had found herself, she said.

"I get to express myself in a way that most people don't get to do," Rahl said.

Junior dancer Keely Naughton has been with the University Dancers for two years, but began dancing when she was just three years old, she said.

Having moved a lot as a child, Naughton said her parents felt that dancing would be a good outlet for her.

"Eventually being on stage really gets in your blood. It is such a natural high," she said.

Of the many reasons Naughton said she valued Van Gelder, the one she valued most was Van Gelder's ability to understand the dancers.

"She looks at each one of us and sees our stresses. She just gets it," she said. "She's also brutally honest, which is so valuable because it creates equality in the relationship."

Dancing was fulfilling, Naughton said, but it was also very time consuming.

If a student auditions for and is accepted to dance with the company, he or she must take three master classes, which last for 1.5 hours.

The student must also take one ballet, one jazz and one modern class, she said. Dancers also practice from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday.

Finding a balance between life, dance and school took prioritizing, Naughton said.

It took recognizing that 30 minutes of down-time was best used if spent reading a few pages for an assignment instead of just relaxing, she said.

Dancers audition for performance pieces throughout the semester, Naughton said. Nonetheless, there are no technique classes during the week before any given performance.

The dancers were straining more this week in preparation for Next, Naughton said.

The week of a performance was not necessarily about improving technique, rather it was about finding an emotional connection with the piece, she said.

"I connected with one piece in particular because I could find a story within the moment," she said.

Some pieces were more abstract than others, Naughton said. There is one piece in "Next" about feminism and finding a voice, she said.

"I felt that I had found my voice in the piece," Naughton said. "Sometimes it just clicks. If you keep digging, you'll find it."

This year there were more percussive pieces in the spring concert, Naughton said.

The performance as a whole was definitely different than in the past, she said.

The subject matter of the pieces in "Next" range from the BP oil spill to life after death, she said.

"The key element is playing on human emotion," Naughton said.

Contact staff writer Liz Monahan at liz.monahan@richmond.edu

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