GW students pride themselves on what they do outside of the classroom. After college, they will tell stories of internship experiences, share pictures from their semester abroad or proudly display their medal after completing a marathon. But seniors Mary Tisa, Kristy Shimabukuro and Nicholette Routhier will most likely remember their time spent on stage.
This Thursday and Friday, the three women – all of whom are dance majors – will present their thesis concert. “Accumulating Forms” is the final product of almost a year’s worth of rehearsals, meetings and collaborations. Even for the experienced dancers, it was a challenging task.
Accepting the challenge
Pursuing a senior thesis has always been an idea of Tisa’s because she enjoys taking on the opportunity it presents to a person.
“I really like challenges,” she said. “I think it’s the only way you can really test your boundaries.”
Tisa, who is also majoring in English, danced in Pittsburgh for nine years before coming to GW. A Presidential Arts Scholarship recipient, she chose GW because she knew she really wanted to dance in college.
“GW had it all, and PAS enabled me to come here,” she said.
In order to pursue a senior thesis, theater and dance majors are required to submit a proposal at the end of their junior year, but Routhier decided even earlier.
“I started planning my thesis during the second semester freshman year,” she said, noting that the idea to incorporate masks into the piece started in high school.
Trained in a number of dance styles including ballet, jazz and lyrical, Routhier did not discover modern until high school. She attended a performing arts boarding school in Massachusetts where she was exposed to the kind of dance training one can expect in college. Also a PAS recipient, Routhier said that her scholarship audition made her want to go to GW.
Shimabukuro didn’t make the decision until last spring.
“I thought it sounded cool, and everyone else had done it so it couldn’t be that hard,” she said. “It’s a nice way to wrap up dancing (at GW).”
Originally from Moorpark, Calif., Shimabukuro attended the L.A. County High School for the Arts before arriving at GW as a PAS recipient and biological anthropology major. Although she has danced since age 10, she never planned on dancing in college.
No matter when the final decision to pursue a thesis was made, each choreographer started from the same point once classes started in September – auditioning a cast and beginning rehearsals. It seems easy enough – choose dancers, make a schedule, choreograph, teach, rehearse, perform. In preparation for November’s DanceWorks concert, where selections from their pieces first premiered, the women learned a lot about taking their artistic work from the studio to the stage.
“I like this semester so much more. Last semester I was learning how my dancers danced and how to choreograph,” Shimabukuro said.
With just six weeks to put together a piece, she said this semester’s shortened rehearsal time was about incorporating lots of material into a final work.
Shimabukuro describes her work, “Piece and Pieces,” as “dancing for the sake of dancing.” She chose a larger cast of seven dancers because she likes having more bodies moving on stage. The choreography process, for her, occurred in rehearsals, but she said she would like to have been better prepared.
But Shimabukuro said she couldn’t have asked for a better cast.
“The highs are seeing them performing (the piece) every time because there is so much material,” she said.
Both Tisa and Routhier’s choreography are rooted in personal experiences.
“I decided to base my piece about trans-racial adoption because it’s very much a part of who I am,” Tisa said. “But this whole process has made me look at it in another perception.”
Using original sound compositions and music by Phillip Glass and Radiohead, “Triptych” is a work about love and loss, but there is a structure to it.
“I think it’s a very dual thing,” Tisa explained. “With loss there’s also love and beauty … And the love can be seen from each point.”
Throughout the choreography process, Routhier encouraged her cast to always take the next step and challenge themselves.
“I am a very demanding person,” she said.
“i.d.(entity): look closer … do you see me now?” incorporates text and movement from the dancers’ own experiences. It also addresses the idea of stereotypes, something that Routhier said from the beginning would be an “extremely personal process.” Throughout the rehearsal process, however, Routhier said her cast has become a very supportive and close group of people.
Switching between dancer and choreographer
The three women have previous experience in choreography and dance, but a question of identity arose in working on their thesis projects: Am I a dancer or a choreographer?
“It’s very different once you step into the role of a choreographer. But I had no idea how hard it would be. Now it’s a treat to be in another piece,” said Tisa, noting the difficulty of adding the responsibilities of being a student into the mix.
“It takes so much dedication and love. I’m so excited about this week. Now all that’s left for me is to enjoy this,” she said.
Shimabukuro noticed the differences in rehearsals for her piece.
“I want to be dancing in it, but I’d rather sit and take notes and giving feedback,” she said.
Always wanting to learn more, Routhier has discovered a lot about herself through the process.
“I’ve learned personally how to challenge myself, and how to narrow ideas and find the most important things to say,” she said.
Dancing after GW
Graduation comes May 16. And while it might be easy to escape from the mindset of classes and papers and finals, it’s hard to do the same with dance. Even for the casual dance student, one finds comfort in a studio where you can leave both your shoes and the stress of everyday life at the door.
Routhier hopes to continue with a career in choreography and performance after graduation, with the goal of one day having her own company. She said she is also considering taking up classes in physical theater and clowning. She has interest in the technical side of dance, too.
“I love management work, and a lot of it is learning how to relate to people,” said Routhier, adding that a job in technical theater could help support her choreographic goals.
Tisa wants dance to remain a big part of her life but said it’s also important to remember the audience in the process.
“What I think is so important about dance is that people take what they can from it,” Tisa said. “If I can make an evocative piece that makes someone think, then that’s all I care about.”
Three very different choreographers, three very different works, one evening of dance. From concept to creation, “Accumulation Forms” represents the diversity of GW dance.
“It’s a way to see three very different types of movement. And no one really knows what modern dance is, so this is a good representation,” Shimabukuro said. “Plus, this is coming from the students.”
“Accumulating Forms” will be performed Thursday, March 4 and Friday, March 5 at 8 p.m. in the Dorothy Betts Theatre. There is a $5 donation. After Friday’s show there is a post-performance discussion and open reception with the choreographers.