From entertaining musicals at NextStop Theatre Company to comedic debuts on the Wolf Trap stage, there’s no question that performing arts are a staple of the Northern Virginia Region. And while many of the individuals who step out in front of hundreds of people to showcase their talent are seasoned professionals, NoVA is also home to those practicing and perfecting their craft on a regular basis.
At the George Mason University School of Dance, aspiring performers are doing just that through classes, rehearsals and one-of-a-kind performances like the Mason Dance Fete, set to take place on Saturday, March 28.
“What we generally do is bring in some of the best choreographers we can find internationally and they stage the work for our performers,” says Susan Shields, director of GMU’s School of Dance and an accomplished choreographer with decades of experience. “The fact that we are able to even dance these works is such a big coup and it’s really what put GMU on the map.”
This year, students will be performing work from esteemed individuals of the dance field, including American choreographer Kyle Abraham and Tony-nominated dancer (and professor at GMU) Christopher d’Amboise. In addition to student showcases, the evening celebration also serves as a fundraiser for the school, raising money for student scholarships of the future, where community members can meet the dancers and School of Dance staff while enjoying hors d’oeuvres, dessert and wine.
Before the talented dancers of GMU take the stage next month, we chatted with Shields to get the inside scoop on what to expect, what it takes to be selected for the showcase and why it matters to the NoVA community. Find highlights from our conversation below.
Give me some details into what we can expect from this year’s showcase.
George Mason and School of Dance don’t always sound the sexiest together, but really we have one of the strongest dance schools in the country. This is our biggie, we call it the gala.
This year, students will be performing work from 25-year-old Micaela Taylor, who kind of bridges the gap between commercial dance and concert dance, which is a viable career option for these students. She navigates both worlds, and the kids are so excited to dance her work. She created a piece for the students and is going to flush it out for her own company. It’s this mesmerizing, six-minute thing. Plus, for the first time, Fairfax Symphony Orchestra will be performing with a few of the dances. It’s all going to be stunning.
You help select the choreographers of the Mason Dance Company Gala Concerts. What is that process like?
One, as the director, part of my job is to get my own community to fall in love with dance. Some people here are scared of dance and really don’t know much about it. Over and over again, any time someone lets me bring them in they are hooked, but it takes someone to make that initial move and tell them it’s great. I think , ‘OK, Fairfax County audience, I want to challenge them, but make them feel welcome and help them understand.’
I also do look at the dancers before me and because we are still an educational institution, if the men need more partnering or the women need something edgier, we pick that for the concert and it partners with the curriculum. I look at networking, how it would benefit my students. But that being said, the artist comes in and chooses the dancers—it’s not on me, they are treated like the real world. Not everybody gets a trophy. They know the game.
What impact does this event have on the students?
Honestly I don’t like calling them students, I truly call them pre-professionals. This event is why they come to Mason, they get to meet the choreographers and get firsthand experience unlike any other. One of the gentlemen who is going to be in Kyle Abraham’s piece, for example, is on scholarship here and has been on Kyle’s radar for years. Now Kyle is going to watch this student perform his own work … talk about an audition of a lifetime.
For the students to get this exposure and networking is great in and of itself, but also just dancing in master works—you can do as much student work as you want, but these works that we choose are so relevant to what’s going on in the current dance climate, and to dance a 25-minute piece, it’s just the best way to learn and improve as a dancer. This is their chance to be a poet athlete.
What is your favorite part of the Dance Fete?
With the party, we get to explain everything to the attendees, and I love that the community gets excited about dance. The community trusts us to know that they are going to see a great show. But the most important thing is, I tend to be astonished by what our students can do. To see them perform this work on the stage, I am a proud mama.
If you want to check out the annual affair for yourself, or are interested in sponsoring, click here.
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