November Dances showcase visually stunning talent, student choreography

The Duke Dance Program's November Dances took place Nov. 17 in Reynolds Industries Theater and featured music from local musician Shana Tucker.
The Duke Dance Program's November Dances took place Nov. 17 in Reynolds Industries Theater and featured music from local musician Shana Tucker.

Duke’s annual dance showcase, the November Dances, proved to be a visually stunning display of athleticism and art last Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17 and 18. The concert presented by the Duke Dance Program featured ballet, modern, jazz and African dance performances, with many of the performances being choreographed by the students themselves. 

The opening dance, “Screendancestudy #4,” was characterized by its eccentric meld of classical music — specifically Giuseppe Tartini’s “Violin Concerto in G Major” — and Lynchian squelches and mechanical sound effects, their juxtaposition making for an otherworldly auditory experience. Gracefully chasse-ing across the stage, the dancers seemed to cover nearly every ballet term in the book — an elegant arabesque here and a succession of impressive pirouettes there. Yet the focal point of the performance highlighted a single dancer with a screen around her waist, colorful projections flickering across it throughout the act. 

“Mirada Ritmica,” choreographed by Associate Professor of Dance Andrea E. Woods Valdés, showcased African-style dance complete with eye-catching costumes, the flowing fabric sashaying with every dancer’s move. A live band of musicians complemented the dance, featuring local singer-songwriter Shana Tucker on the cello and musician Will Ridenour playing the kora, a type of West African lute. The dancers’ synchronicity exhibited their stamina and discipline as they leapt and twirled about the stage. 

Perhaps the most notable performance of the evening, “Pour,” was choreographed by Duke’s acclaimed dance professor, Nina Wheeler. “Pour” not only demonstrated striking choreography but also a genius display of lighting — contrasting beam lights and back lights with fog created a mystical, three-dimensional effect onstage. The piece incorporated modern dance components as dancers alluringly crawled and bound around the central prop, a table. In a single triumphant moment, one dancer rose up above the others, the spotlight shining upon him as if he were a godlike figure, marking the performance’s ultimate culmination. 

How does a dancer or a group prepare for the November Dances? What does it take to assemble an impressive and tenacious performance such as that of “The Reveal” or “1+1”? Senior Sara Yuen has been a dancer for fifteen years and described the process of choreographing a November Dance.

“Repertory classes start in the beginning of the semester. Oftentimes students help choreograph parts of group performances. I was in the ‘Pour’ performance, and working with Nina was especially wonderful! She’s got a really clear vision of what she wants. Dancing for her was invigoratingly challenging emotionally and technically,” Yuen said. “My duet piece with Ashlynn was also a really great but very different experience. We started it as a study last semester in Professor Woods-Valdés’ Advanced Dance Composition class and it culminated into a performance for the November Dances.” 

Dancers often practice multiple times a week, finding time outside of class to practice alone or with on-campus student dance groups. Yuen incorporates dance into her day-to-day life by partaking in dance clubs and diversifying her dance courses each semester. 

“I come into contact with dance everyday. I practice with Duke Chinese Dance six times a week,” Yuen said. “DCD has been a home for me since freshman year. Growing up, I was raised with strictly classical ballet. But, since coming to college, I have tried more modern dance styles and taken some different classes so that I may be greater exposed to the dance world.”

Many dancers have aspirations to dance after college yet hold career goals outside of dance for the future. Flipping through the biographies of the dancers in the November Dances program, a variety of interests, from linguistics to economics, distinguishes each individual. Yuen said she encourages fellow students to explore topics that may contribute to the quality and authenticity of their Duke experience.

“I think we should all be trying to be ourselves,” Yuen said. “In a world where different forces will try to trick you into working towards anything but authenticity, dance stands as a pretty good practice. Even if, like in Nina’s piece, I’m trying to dance like a really badass, strong woman, I try to find an authentic place in myself where that can come from. When I perform, I’m engaging in showmanship, but I’m trying to present some part of myself — maybe a part that I don’t get to show very often. It’s liberating. I think it can inform life offstage.”

Indeed, the Duke Dance Department’s November Dances show was a spectacular showcase of emotion and raw talent within the Duke student dance community. Each dance bore its own unique personality, as each dancer brought his or her own unique interpretation of a performance to life onstage. 


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