the Gauntlet

Calgary's Dance Dance Revolution

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With the advent of shows like So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing with the Stars, the art of dance has been suddenly legitimized in the eyes of a hungry populace looking for their next entertainment fix. It's no surprise: the dynamics seen in dance combine the dramatics of live theatre with impressive acrobatic and athletic abilities. In turn, classes have taken off as people learn the steps to such styles as flamenco, salsa and swing.

But classes can't compare to the wonder of live dance. The University of Calgary fine arts department debuts this year's version of its wildly popular Dance Montage Thu., Nov. 22. Nearing its 40th anniversary, Dance Montage has become a stalwart institution in the fine arts department and in the community at large.

"Dance Montage started in 1969 as a showcase for the physical education students," explains artistic director Dawn Dymond. "It gave them a place to showcase the dances they created in the their movement studies class. Over the years it has changed to become more of a community event. It's not just the university students now."

While the fine arts department sponsors Dance Montage, it's an event that enables the greater Calgary dance community to show off to audiences. People who otherwise would not be able to choreograph in a professional dance show may suddenly find themselves a role--a huge asset to struggling talent in need of a big break.

"As a choreographer, it's great," explains fifth-year choreographer and U of C graduate Anna-Lisa Bentzen. "That's where I got my foot in the door for choreographing. Once I started choreographing in 2003 when I finished university, it was my first opportunity to put work on a stage with lighting and an actual crew that puts the piece together--n­ot just me showing in my piece the studio."

One of the biggest boons for these budding choreographers is the ability to get noticed for their works. By showing their pieces on a stage as opposed to the studio, where there's a lighting and technical crew devoted to making their dream a reality, the choreographers suddenly find themselves with the chance to create and perfect a sequence to show off their style.

"There are a lot of choreographers here who haven't been noticed yet, and for them to be able to show off their skills is a great opportunity," says Nicole Wasylenko, a current student in the university's dance program, who has been involved as a dancer with Dance Montage for two years now.

The practical experience gained from working with local members of the community and students within the university is an experience that is not often given to choreographers. Now with the chance to produce dances for the main stage, the choreographers learn more about the production process.

"It was a really good learning experience to challenge yourself to work with people you've never worked with before," says choreographer and dancer Alison Downey. "I've found growing up in a studio where you dance with the same people every year, it's totally different."

This infusion of such new talent from diverse backgrounds is an opportunity for these less-experienced dancers and choreographers to gain valuable insight from the professionals that take part. The benefits gained aren't all one-way, though.

"By having the beginner-type of choreographers and dancers mix in with people who've had a lot of training, it blends the best of both of worlds," says Dymond. "You've got that energy, enthusiasm and excitement of those brand-new people, with the training and depth of the people who've been dancing and choreographing for years."

Even the dancers, who've been dancing and practicing for years upon years on end, often find themselves learning new things and discovering new ways of moving their bodies. Wasylenko says it has not only strengthened her dance skills, but also expanded her knowledge of the entire process.

"It's good for us dancers," she explains. "We get to do something we've never tried before. We also get to audition, but it's not as intense as a professional audition. We're still able to get that practice. Last year, I worked with a choreographer who made a Latin piece and it was really great to work with that style. We get to do things we don't do every day or work with new choreographers and see how they move."

The very art of montage is based in the collection of smaller, disparate elements and putting them together. While this runs the risk of coming out into a misshapen mutant so frighteningly awful that the soul is left seared in horror, Dance Montage is a completely different beast.

"The theme this year tends to be variety," remarks Dymond. "I think its definitely one of the most easily accessible dance shows out there simply because of the range of dance pieces put into the show. We have pieces that are ballet, contemporary, Afro-Brazilian, hip-hop, latin dancing, tap and funk all displayed in the show."

Audiences seem to enjoy Dance Montage, from the edgy and contemporary pieces to the more crowd-pleasing pieces. The show is almost always a smash-hit sellout success. Whatever their reasons for attending, the crowd wants to see more--even if that means they have to be on stage to get it.

"Because we have a large cast, we often bring in people who go to the show saying 'oh, I'm going because my friend's in it,'" laughs Dymond. "Surprisingly enough, they often love it so much they audition the next year themselves."

Since Dance Montage has been performed for nearly four decades, there are more and more people who've experienced it and return every year. This little community within a community is home to some loyal and supportive fans.

"Because it's been going on since 1969, we have a lot of people who were performers themselves who come back to it year after year," explains Dymond. "It's a real grassroots sort of thing. I think the community itself has always been wonderfully supportive of Montage. I think that it's because the involvement with the community that we have."

The involvement within the community is an important element to the show. Dancers and choreographers alike are able to meet with like-minded peers. What's more, it's an opportunity for the community members to display their skills to a loyal and captivated audience.

"It's really great," says Downey. "It's one of the few organized dance performance events within the community that [dancers outside the U of C] can be a part of. There aren't many others and it's pretty awesome that the university opens it up to anyone in the community instead of just those at the university's dance program."

As Dance Montage sells out year after year, the show is a pointed example against the campus' purported apathy towards trying to maintain a sense of community.

"The first time as a group, with the all lights and music, the performers were allowed to watch the show; it was nice to hear the encouragement of everyone when you get off stage and hear 'great job, I really love what you did," says Bentzen. "It's very encouraging to hear the cheers. It creates a nice little group, a family."

This is one of the most important aspects of Dance Montage to the dancers.

"There's such a strong feeling of family between the cast, and a sense of wonderment at the movement of dance and how it brings us all together," says Dymond. "Lifetimes of friendships come out of being involved in this."

Dance Montage runs Nov. 22-24 at the University Theatre.