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Society, Arts and Culture

Orchesis Dance Company’s Performance of “Falling Forward” Reaches New Heights

A group of dancers perform a lift on stage under blue lights
Written By Robyn Kontra Tanner // Photos by Joe Johnston

A blazer-clad soloist twirls with striking precision. Breathless performers climb over each other, satirizing the futility of competition. A mass of dancers hurtles across the stage in an expression of metamorphosis.

These scenes, from Orchesis Dance Company’s winter concert, “Falling Forward,” explored gravity, inertia and unbridled expression. The 53rd annual show was a mosaic of 12 diverse performances — mostly contemporary dance with highlights of delicate ballet, traditional Folklórico, jazz, and hip hop.

Underneath the spectacle, the show is a capstone experience for students in the Theatre and Dance Department, paralleling the artistic and technical rigor a professional dancer undergoes in preparation for a concert.

This year’s show came together over months of preparation anchored by DANC 345: Choreography/Workshop in Dance Concert Preparation, a fall course taught by Professor Diana Stanton, with assistance from faculty member Michelle Walter. Students auditioned to be part of the company — now 31 dancers strong — and spent 15 to 20 hours per week in studio rehearsals refining their pieces. Dancers say Orchesis’ tight-knit community fosters trust, friendship and creative expression.

“Even if I'm not turning in assignments or putting numbers on my calculator, this is just a different kind of academic rigor,” said McKenna Tracy, a business administration major and dance minor who performed in seven of the show’s pieces. “I'm still pushing and challenging myself but in a different way.”

The company revived its Artists in Residence program for the first time since the pandemic, bringing professionals like Lisa Deyo and Tamica Washington-Miller to campus to teach master classes on different styles of dance and to set four unique pieces with the company. Four more dances were choreographed by faculty, and four were helmed by students.

Nutrition major Chloe Rosero had academics on her mind when she choreographed “Ball and Chain.” She said her lab and STEM-based courses in biology, chemistry and genetics can be intense, and this piece symbolized how she uses dance to break free and express herself.

The performance began with dancers hobbling onto stage, expressing a struggle against an unseen heaviness on individual and collective scales. Dancers eventually released that tension and took joy in their own levity while the song “Tears in the Club” by FKA Twigs played.

A performer jumps on stage during a dance concert
A dancer jumps during a performance of "Ball and Chain," choreographed by student Chloe Rosero.

“I was nervous they wouldn’t accept my piece. It’s a very swaggy, contemporary fusion, hip-hop-esque style, which I didn’t see last year in Orchesis,” Rosero said. “What I learned is, if you have a vision and it’s something that speaks to you, go for it!”

Each student choreographer was responsible for bringing their full concept to life, leading months of rehearsals, refining music transitions, selecting wardrobe, and setting a lighting concept with Clint Bryson, the show’s technical director.

“Concert dance isn’t just about the choreography. It’s how it fits in the show,” said Rosero. “It got me thinking about the big picture. We have to consider all things from the audience perspective and how we want it to feel.”

Student Joyce Lam choreographed a piece, titled “Persistence of Memory,” to physically express a Salvador Dalí painting of the same name, where melting clocks droop from withered trees. The fourth-year accounting and information systems student said the pace of her last year of college got her thinking about falling forward through time. On stage, which was lit with blues and oranges that echo the surrealist painting, 12 dancers struck graceful poses with arms outstretched like clock hands before they melted into new shapes.

“I hate public speaking, but that's what I like about dance: I don't have to talk to say what I want to say,” said Lam. “I also feel really powerful. Usually, I walk around campus feeling really timid. But when I'm dancing in the studio, I feel so strong. It's very empowering.”

Dancers in flowing skirts take graceful postures on stage
Dancers embody the concept of melting clocks during a performance of "Persistence of Memory," choreographed by student Joyce Lam.

The concert ended with a show-stopping finale, called “Before You Fall,” a 10-minute opus choreographed by guest artist Mike Esparza in collaboration with Orchesis dancers. The performance featured dancers exploring every conceivable way to trip, tumble and succumb to gravity. It concluded on a triumphant note with all 31 performers moving in unison and catching one another before the crash.

Orchesis is one of Cal Poly’s longest-running student experiences in the performing arts. Professor Emerita Moon Ja Minn Suhr founded the Orchesis Dance Company in 1969 while establishing the Dance Program and dance minor at Cal Poly. Students involved in Orchesis today major in a variety of disciplines like construction management, mechanical engineering, and business administration, bringing art to life from different perspectives.

“We like to think that we are exemplary of Learn by Doing because we physically do it. We take group projects to its zenith because in any dance rehearsal, you can't just kind of sit back and be passive — you have to actively participate,” said Stanton. “We're not just learning steps that somebody else made up. Most of these pieces are done collaboratively.”

Stanton believes everyone can feel inspired by the show, whether they are a dance enthusiast or not.

“Movement is everyone's first language,” she said. “Everybody knows what a body is, and everybody feels a body. Sometimes people struggle a little bit, and ask, ‘What does it mean?’ And we don't have words for it. That's why we dance.”

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