Students get new perspectives on dance in spring work

February 16, 2016 / by / 0 Comment

By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau

Dance faculty and students in the College of Fine Arts and Production are studying this week with guest artist Dr. Padmaja Suresh, a renowned Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher from Bangalore, India.

Dr. Padmaja Suresh

Dr. Padmaja Suresh

Suresh is an intellectual performer whose productions have won her critical acclaim around the world. She has lectured and danced at various international conferences, including at UNESCO, and her school, Aatmayala, shares dance with underprivileged children in her community and rural areas around it.

Participants in the classes will be adding what they learned from Kwame Shaka Opare, a classically trained West African dancer based in Baltimore who was a guest artist on campus in January, when he composed a dance with two sections of his original work for the spring performances.

Opare, who started touring in the late ’90s with the Broadway show STOMP, is renowned for his ability to engage students and audiences and convey the meaning and purpose of his work. At his lecture last month, Opare connected deeply with students as he shared about his experiences teaching youth in Baltimore. He described the stages of transformation that they experienced, which became the basis of his master’s thesis and concert.

Suresh and Opare’s work at Grand Canyon University will be capped by an informal program at 3 p.m. Saturday in Saguaro Hall 104 and will contribute to the Ethington Dance Ensemble’s spring concert, “The Giving Voice,” April 15-16 in Ethington Theatre.

The work of Opare and Suresh dovetails with the department’s mission to uplift and enlighten audience members, to demonstrate compassion and care to everyone, and to love one another as Jesus has loved us, said Susannah Keita, director of the Dance Department.

“We believe there are potent messages to offer and lessons to learn through this project,” Keita said. “Kwame and Padmaja represent African and Indian forms of dance, showing both commonalities and contrasts to the dances that our Ethington Dance Ensemble cast members are used to performing, such as ballet, modern and jazz. We expect it to be an exciting and original concert that will spur our dancers toward new areas of growth.”

Susannah Keita

Susannah Keita

“The Giving Voice” will continue where Ethington’s winter concert, “Pacem in Terris,” left off, she said.

“One inspiration comes from Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, who stated, ‘I raise my voice not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard,’” Keita said.

Suresh, who teaches Bharatanatyam, a 5,000-year-old dance form from South India, said the goal of this week’s program is to establish common ground among dance forms, Indian classical and others, based on an understanding of the deep layers within the practices. Students and faculty are being exposed to crisp demonstrations set to music in the most accurate language of Sanskrit and to rhythmic dance syllables and expressive, emotional gestures of the hands, limbs and face, she said.

Using his diverse experience in the performing arts, Opare founded DishiBem Traditional Contemporary Dance Group in 2003 to bridge the gap between traditional West African and contemporary performance modes. He has since created critically acclaimed, award-winning work that speaks to social issues around the world.

Freshman dance education major Kylee Ernst will appear in Opare’s choreography, dancing to the music of the late Nina Simone, a singer and civil-rights activist, with inspiration from West African dance. Ernst also will dance a classical ballet with GCU freshman dance major Chesney Thompson with choreography y adjunct professor Scott Martin.

Ernst said one style is an old friend, while the other is a new acquaintance.

“The West African Jazz takes me out of my comfort zone and challenges me in ways that ballet doesn’t,” she said. “It is very high energy while making hard-hitting steps smooth. I love ballet because it is strong and graceful. It is all about clean lines and doing the technique perfectly. Ballet has always come pretty easy to me, but no matter what, there is always something to work on.”

Ernst said she is looking forward to learning different styles from all over the world in her classes this week and rehearsing for and performing in the spring main stage show.

“Being a freshman dancing on the GCU stage is a huge blessing,” she said. “They told us at the beginning of the year that it is hard for freshmen to get into the show, but there were a handful of us who would have the opportunity to dance. So it’s a blessing, but it’s also very intimidating. We watch the upperclassmen and see the expectations they have set, and as freshmen we want to meet those expectations and wonder how it will ever be possible. Knowing that we have great instructors guiding us along the way is comforting.”

The Dance Department takes an active role in GCU’s mission to transform lives by nurturing students who express their living faith through the language of dance, she said. “Many of our teacher candidates will be serving these communities directly when they enter the workforce,” Keita said. “Our performances and teaching excursions take us out to local elementary and middle schools, where we introduce dance to young audiences through performances and direct classroom experiences, empowering them to make creative choices. When visiting Christian schools, we can be even more vocal about encouraging students to use their talents to glorify God.”

Contact Janie Magruder at (602) 639-8018 or [email protected]

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