While most Swatties were gradually adjusting to campus life in early September, Lia D’Alessandro ’21 was sweating it out in Troy Dance Lab.
“We had a tough weekend dancing from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day,” she said. “We were hungry, sweating, working hard, and challenged physically and mentally.”
That weekend of intensive rehearsals is part of Christopher K. Morgan and Artists (CKM&A)’s year-long residency in the department of music and dance. Founded by acclaimed artist Christopher K. Morgan, CKM&A is a professional contemporary dance company that aims to uncover social and cultural issues through performances and community engagement efforts.
“My creative process usually begins with something I personally experience or observe – the struggles that I see, or issues I grapple with in my life,” Morgan said.
CKM&A is the first featured guest artist invited by the dance program to campus. “I’m excited about the potential for students to build a long-term relationship with professional artists,” Olivia Sabee, assistant professor and director of dance, said.
Sabee reached out to CKM&A about the residency because of her familiarity with Morgan’s work.
“[Morgan] is a pillar of the Washington, D.C. dance community,” she said. “He makes really excellent work. He’s approachable but will push for excellence.”
This semester, CKM&A will present one of their most iconic pieces, titled “In the Cold Room”, for the fall dance concert. “In the Cold Room” experiments with light, shadow, and temperature to evoke a feeling of spatial and psychological isolation among the three dancers in the piece.
“Isolation, in my own experience, is often self-imposed,” Morgan said. “I built this into my work with the three [dancers]. Even though they physically connect and touch, they are not deeply connected and rarely look at one another.”
Morgan also described how light streaming into the “Cold Room” symbolizes escape; darkness, continued isolation.
“I imagined three people stuck in space,” he said. “Light seeps in from different places, making it feel like there’s an opportunity for exit or escape, but every time they start to approach the light’s point of entry, it eludes them and they are trapped.”
During her three-day visit to campus in September, Tiffanie Carson, CKM&A Assistant Director, conducted the audition and rehearsals for “In the Cold Room.” In total, six students were chosen to participate in the piece, including D’Alessandro. The six students will form two casts, each consisting of three dancers.
Carson taught the choreography over the weekend when she was on campus. Louisa Carman ’21, one of the six dancers, thought that rehearsing with Carson was challenging but rewarding.
“We don’t usually have that type of work environment in Swarthmore’s dance classes because there is more time spent on everything,” she said. “This was more fast-paced and challenging, but in a good way, because being able to quickly pick up the choreography and style that somebody is presenting is a good skill to have as a dancer.”
D’Alessandro appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with other dancers during rehearsals, which allows them to encourage one another and constantly improve.
“We work with one another to perfect and execute the movement in our own ways,” she said. “You need to be determined and continue to push yourself to achieve your goals, so that you can become the best dancer you physically can be.”
She particularly enjoys partner work with other dancers. “We need to feel one another’s energy and experience the movement with the right intentions,” she said. “It requires a new level of self-awareness.”
After Carson’s stay, the students have been practicing weekly under the guidance of Sabee and Stephanie Liapis, assistant professor of dance.
Carman is grateful to Sabee and Liapis for their active involvement. “Their contribution to rehearsals has been really helpful,” she said. “We learnt the choreography so quickly at first and they helped us make sense of what happened over that weekend.”
“It’s really great to see the students grow into their roles in the piece,” Sabee said. “I’m excited to see them on stage in December.”
Besides benefitting from the perspectives provided by Carson, Sabee, and Liapis, the dancers also rehearsed once with Morgan to better understand his vision for “In the Cold Room”.
“I liked how [Morgan] would talk to us about the technique behind how we can do the movements, and also provide metaphors for what we can think about during the dance,” Carman said.
D’Alessandro thought it was especially valuable to learn from Carson, who was one of the three original performers in the piece, as well as Morgan, the choreographer.
“Both are incredible instructors and people with amazing artistic visions,” she said. “Working with both of them and and seeing their collaboration was really amazing in aiding our understanding.”
Next year, CKM&A will present “Pōhaku” as part of a featured artist series co-sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant of the President’s Office.
“Pōhaku” is a deeply personal performance that draws upon Morgan’s native Hawaiian background. The piece integrates elements of contemporary dance and traditional hula to tell a captivating story about the native communities of Hawaii.
“It began with my interest in connecting – or rather, reconnecting – with my native Hawaiian culture,” Morgan said. “Most of my career has been in modern dance, but throughout my career, I was interested in hula and storytelling…I hoped to dive deeper into Hawaiian themes and reintegrate hula into my movement vocabulary.”
Before “Pōhaku” debuts at Swarthmore, CKM&A will host a stone-collecting workshop open to all members of the community. The stones gathered will be incorporated into the set of “Pōhaku”.
“Their attention and care is infused into the stones gathered for the set, so it’s a way to share our native Hawaiian culture and connect to the community,” Morgan said.
For now, however, dancers are eager to perform “In the Cold Room” for the audience at Swarthmore. Carman hopes to see the effort that she and her fellow dancers have devoted to the piece will come to fruition at the fall dance concert.
“Being in this piece has challenged me as a dancer because it is technically difficult, but I’m hoping that by the time we’re performing it, we can successfully convey the messages in the piece,” she said.
Like Carman, D’Alessandro is also looking forward to the performance. “I’m really excited to show the world what we have and can’t wait for the concert.”
Image courtesy of swarthmore.edu