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By Mirella Christou

Choreographic Works 2006 is the prime venue for Ryerson dance students to showcase their most visceral, intimate, energized and even comedic self-created dance pieces.

The show runs in an intentionally small space to recreate a low-key workshop ambiance in the front section of the Ryerson Theatre. The front row spills onto the base of the stage, allowing the audience to sit close enough to see beads of sweat form on the dancers’ brows.

“Smear your sweat on someone else’s skin… I could break you. Yes, even you,” threatens a voice over the speakers, while soloist Lara Gemmiti stands transfixed under the heat of a bright spotlight. As the menacing voice drones on, the soloist paces frantically, then leaves the stage.

The lights envelop the seven remaining dancers on stage, both male and female, who move with pugnacious intensity and swift, cutting movements and jumps. “It’s about empowerment and liberation, being pushed to a place that you may not want to go,” says an emotionally charged-up Ryan Lee about his piece Steal no Voice of Mine. As he clenches his fist, he adds: “But once you’re there, you start to feel a sense of comfort.” The third-year choreographer and dancer literally gets pushed, actually propelled off another dancer’s body. “The idea (for the dance) came from real-life situations and dealing with acceptance issues, or not being accepted for who you are,” he says. Lee’s piece about anger, aggression and domination ignites fervor on stage, and its several narrative layers are danced out furiously by his cast.

About 46 original three- to four-minute solo and group dances are prepared overall, but only 27 are performed during each show. It is a highly reputed and popular show, and, needless to say, it sells out quickly. “Any show we do is a platform for dance companies to see our work,” Lee says. The audience oftentimes consists of professional dance companies that some students invite in hopes of making connections in the industry. In the realistic, emerging-artist atmosphere, the students wear many hats, becoming double or even triple threats — not only in their roles as dancers and choreographers, but also due to their versatility.

They perform many different dance styles, ranging from modern, jazz and ballet to lighthearted theatrical- and hip-hop-inspired pieces. Students are constantly encouraged to push their limits. “The intensity of the program makes you have to live as a dancer,” Lee says. In preparation for the performance, each dance requires about 12 hours a week of additional rehearsal time on top of time spent in class. Some students are in up to five or six pieces each.

They explore an organic physicality and tenderness in several pieces, but most prominently in The Bodies Perspective, choreographed by fourth-year student Lacey Smith. Three male and three female dancers face the bright lights with little clothing and lots of stage presence, partnering up to perform fluid lifts and slow-tempo phrases. “Not all dance has to be constant movement and kicking your legs around all of the time,” Smith says, as she begins introspecting her often misconstrued art form of contemporary dance.

“Dancers are very emotional people,” she says. “All our lives, we express ourselves through movement. It’s our bodies’ interpretation of what we’re doing — we’re not vocal people.”

So while there is room for thoughtful reflection and questioning, there is also ample opportunity to poke fun at the ever-present contemporary dance clich?s, viewed by some as esoteric. The meta-theatrical Understudies Part 2: Series 101 stands as an example that dancers can capitalize on their sense of humour. Dressed in neon pink and orange unitards, the duo explains the intention of their “interpretive dance” piece Hey what’s that in your sandwich?

“I took a whole year of (acrobatics),” says one of the dancers, after being questioned on the type of preparation that went into the piece, set to an Arcade Fire song.

“The funny pieces are a break for the audience, especially since it’s a long show, and it’s a lot of work you’re digesting,” Smith says.

The students take the advice of their faculty seriously. Dance program director Nadia Potts, producer Vicki St. Denys and faculty member Karen Duplisea work with the choreographers to help bring focus and direction to the pieces. “They really don’t let you get too comfortable or complacent,” Smith says.

Sandra Joanovic, a third-year student who dances in six pieces, says that it can be a tough aspect to overcome.

“You have to be able to let go of everything you’ve learned the last 18 years before you came here,” she says.

Choreographic Works 2006 runs until March 18 at the Ryerson Theatre.

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