The Collegian
Monday, October 02, 2023

Behind the curtain: An inside look at UR's dance company

<p>Nine members of the University Dancers work with choreographer Christian von Howard to rehearse his piece, which will be performed at their annual show in March.&nbsp;</p>

Nine members of the University Dancers work with choreographer Christian von Howard to rehearse his piece, which will be performed at their annual show in March. 

First, you hear the music. A simple beat, something you find yourself nodding your head to without even thinking.

Then, you walk into a chic black room covered with mirrors and windows that fill the space with natural light. Finally, you notice the dancers moving fluidly, in perfect sync with the beat as if the music itself were an extension of their limbs.

The dance instructor seems to be speaking to them in another language only they can understand. Almost instantly, their bodies flow together while they start a different dance in rhythm with the drum, as if they have been practicing it all their lives.

The members of the University Dancers give up at least six and a half hours each week, although many commit to more because of their love for dance, said sophomore student dancer Taylor Grindle.

“UD is a professional company with a group of dancers that work really hard and do something that they love,” said Julia Vidlak, a sophomore student dancer. “All these girls are able to take all the stresses outside of the studio and really focus on what they love to do and dance hard and really come together and create a piece of art at the end of it all.” 

Anne Van Gelder, a faculty member in the department of theater and dance, is the artistic director of University Dancers, also called Dance 306. The program counts as a half-credit course because of the time commitment. 

Every year, Van Gelder creates the overall theme for the annual spring concert, teaches classes, choreographs a dance piece for the concert, invites guest choreographers to work with the company and figures out the dancers’ schedules, she said. 

In addition to carrying out her usual duties, Van Gelder is helping to plan and host Dancing Histories: This Ground, this year’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival of Literature and the Arts. 

Van Gelder’s goal for University Dancers is to promote a variety of styles so members who are trained in one form of dance can diversify their skills, she said.

Vidlak, who is classically trained in ballet, said, “Being able to explore modern, it’s definitely been a challenge for me, but it’s been a lot of fun figuring out different ways you can move your body and not just have to stick to one art form."

To become members of University Dancers, students attend an audition on the first Saturday of the fall semester. Unlike in traditional auditions in which the dancer performs a solo, Van Gelder has the students take a dance class together. This way, she can watch as the students perform various dance forms and assess their strengths and weaknesses, Van Gelder said.

“You get to see what these people look like together and that’s actually important too, to sort of see what a group looks like,” Van Gelder said. 

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After cuts were made and 23 dancers were selected to become members this year, the real work began immediately. Classes started three nights a week. Rehearsals began for the faculty-choreographed dances for the spring concert, which will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the company’s creation on Feb. 28-29 and March 1, 2020, Van Gelder said. 

During the next couple of weeks, the dancers also auditioned for the student-led choreography pieces for the spring concert. As guest choreographers come to visit the school, all the dancers make time to attend these choreographers’ classes. They might have to add another regular rehearsal to their schedule because these choreographers also create pieces for the spring concert, Van Gelder said.

University Dancers opens opportunities for students. Once students have taken Movement Improvisation and Choreography I, they can choreograph their own piece that could be performed at the spring concert, Van Gelder said.

Madison Ernstes had such an opportunity when her piece on gun violence and 9/11 appeared in last year’s spring concert IN/MOTION. 

“Last year, I can tell you I was absolutely terrified,” Ernstes said. “It’s a very vulnerable position to be … ‘This is my work, please judge it.’”

This year, Ernstes is working on her senior thesis capstone. She is choreographing her own dance, researching and writing papers surrounding the piece and choosing the lighting, sound and costumes, she said. 

Instead of making her performance about a human issue, this year, Ernstes, a biology and dance double major, decided she wanted to combine her two interests into her piece. This is how she came up with the idea to make her dance about the biology and physiology of memory. Creating the dance had been a hard but interesting journey, Ernstes said.

Along with completing her capstone, Ernstes took on the role of company captain. She described her job as being a liaison between students and faculty, as well as organizing social events for members and designing the spirit wear.

“I guess you could consider me kind of a TA position, but unpaid,” Ernstes said jokingly.

Not only do the dancers get the opportunity to choreograph, they also perform for famous choreographers whom they may have read about in their textbooks, Ernstes said. This year, the Martha Graham Dance Company taught a master class for the dancers, she said. 

The choreographers who come to the University of Richmond are either recruited by Van Gelder or make themselves available after hearing about the company’s good works, Van Gelder said. Having guest choreographers allows students to explore different types of dance and learn more about the dance industry, she said.

“It’s interesting to be kind of the guinea pigs in the creative process,” Vidlak said. “Then you kind of have to think, ‘How am I going to piece this together myself when I’m going to be choreographing?’” 

Through it all, the dancers are a family, Ernstes said. 

“There’s something about going into a studio and sweating and looking your absolute worst in front of all these people and then having to trust everyone,” Ernstes said. “You do lifts. You do throws. You do partner work, floor work. You get bruised together. You cry together. You laugh together.”

Contact news writer Maeve McCormick at 

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