Sarah Godbehere ’04, Ellie Frazier ’05, Jason Potell ’05 and Emily Bloomenthal ’05 performed last Friday with H.T. Chen & Dancers in a work called “Bian Dan” at The Egg in Albany, N.Y.
How did you get invited to perform in this show?
SG: We’ve had a longstanding relationship with H.T. Chen and Dancers. Back in ’92, they began a long residency in the area. In ’93, they created a work called “Hidden Voices” on the Williams campus, which was based on Chinese strike breakers in North Adams in the 1870s. The work premiered in New York in 1994, and they restaged it on Williams students in ’95. Then, students starting doing internships with them over the summer. So, when they knew that they were going to be doing something in the Albany area, they decided that they would invite some Williams students to perform with them. We invited all of the dance groups on campus to the dance program retreat weekend this fall. We had a bunch of guest artists come in, and Chen & Dancers came and started teaching their piece. Anyone who was there was invited to be involved in it, so that’s how we learned the first part of the piece.
Could you talk a little about the work that you performed?
EB: The piece is about a boy who immigrated to the U.S.Â from China with his family and is torn betweenÂ the traditional Chinese life and the “bad American teenagers.” In the end, the different generations and cultures are able to come together. We played the bad teenagers and were in a fight scene, which I thought was kind of funny because it would be hard to find four people less likely to get in a fight than the four of us.
EF: I was really surprised by how well the choreography brought across the story. I really didn’t know much about the piece before the rehearsals started, but it was really neat to see it all come together.
SG: I think that the company’s style really says a lot about what they’re trying to show. The choreographer, H.T. [Chen], came to America a number of years ago, and his company melds modern American dance with Chinese traditional dance. Throughout the piece, you see examples of authentic Chinese dance, like a traditional scarf dance, but you also see a lot of lifts and weight-sharing, which are very much a part of American modern dance.
JP: There was even a section called “Swing – Lift” that a number of the company members did.
Was it interesting to see Chinese dancers do swing dancing?
SG: Oh, they can do anything!
EB: The company members were beautiful dancers, and really nice people also, so I really enjoyed working with them. I found the experience valuable because it gave me an idea of what it is like to be part of a professional dance company, and I would love to work with Chen & Dancers again in the future. I also learned new dance vocabulary, most of which was derived from Chinese martial arts, and I always love the opportunity to perform.
EF: It was just so cool to work with a professional dance company. They’re all so good. It’s really interesting to eavesdrop on them talking in the wings. I remember one of them was saying that she did the professional ballerina thing for too long, and that her feet just couldn’t take it anymore.
SG: It was cool because although I’d done modern dance before, I had never done Chinese dance. I brought back a traditional Chinese fan dance that I had learned over the summer.
EF: It needed a different technique than anyone in the company had ever done.
SG: Another interesting thing was despite the fact that these are all professional dancers who do this for a living, and who are all incredible, none of them can have this as their only job. At this point in American history, there is basically no funding for modern dance. Even though this particular company is really well-funded by the government, all of the dancers still waited tables to make more money. A lot of them were really devastated during 9/11, as many restaurants in lower Manhattan closed. A lot of them were also talking about taking classes to keep their technique up, but they don’t even have enough money for classes. So after all that, it was pretty disconcerting for someone who might want to pursue a career in dance.
Are any of you considering careers in dance?
SG: Yes. [laughs]
EF: And I’ll be in the audience watching her. I don’t think that I want to become a professional dancer, but I’d love to work in a dance-related or other artistic field. I just consider myself really lucky to have this experience. Here up at Williams, you don’t expect to be able to work with a professional dance company, and it was just really interesting to feel what it was like to be in a professional company.
SG: I think that a really wonderful thing about the piece was that they involved a huge number of community members. They have toured this piece around, and everywhere they go, they involve the community. There were actually two colleges involved – Williams and Skidmore, in addition to six children and a number of adults, most of whom had had some dance experience, but not necessarily a lot. There are not many companies that will take in people, train them and put them on stage in large venue for such a big production.
EB: I was impressed at how well they integrated all of the community members, who ranged in age from five to maybe 50 or 60, into the production. All the different groups (children, teens and adults) appeared in a number of different scenes, but putting all of it together was surprisingly painless.
EF: Another thing that I thought made H.T. Chen and Company unique was how important their Chinese heritage was to them. I don’t know how many other dance companies there are whose culture is such an important part of it. It really piqued my interest in Chinese culture, and it was an interesting way to learn about a small part of that culture.
So, moving back, what kinds of dance are you involved in at Williams?
SG: Emily, Ellie and I are all involved in the Williams College Dance Company, which is a part of the Dance Department, and which focuses on student choreography and lot of different forms of dance. We’re modern-based, but we have done jazz and ballet.
EF: Sarah and I are ballet-trained and Emily is mostly jazz-trained, so the members of bring a lot of different backgrounds to the company, and it makes for a really cool dynamic.
EB: I’m also in Sankofa, which is a lot of fun, and I love the fact that it is very different from anything I’ve ever done before. I didn’t even know what step was, but when I came here for Preview Days, I saw Sankofa perform, and I said, “I am going to do that.” I totally made a fool of myself at the audition, but it definitely got a lot easier with practice.
JP: I’m the co-founder, president and only teacher of ballroom dancing on campus at the moment. I teach classes two times a week, and I also teach swing dancing when I can. We do performances for the pre-frosh weekend jamborees.
How did you guys get started dancing in the first place, many long years ago?
SG: Well, I started as a gymnast, and we were forced to take ballet, which I hated, so I would try to sneak out of class. But by the time I quit gymnastics, I had really come to like ballet, so by fourth grade I started dancing ballet, and I’ve been dancing ever since.
EB: I’ve always loved performing and I did a little bit of dance when I was little. I stopped dancing to do gymnastics fairly seriously for a while, but when I realized that I was never going to compete because I was afraid of beam, I came back to dance and concluded I liked it more anyway.
EF: I started out, just like every little girl, in stupid little ballet classes, where you’re just playing with scarves. Most girls quit after about two years, but I just kept going until I was a junior in high school, when I realized that I had been in “The Nutcracker” every year of my life for ten years, and I thought it was time to draw the line there.
JP: I come from L.A., where the traditional thing to do on weekends is to go out clubbing and social dancing. Then I found out in high school that I liked swing dancing, waltz, foxtrot and all those dances a lot more than clubbing, so I started doing that sort of dancing on the weekends. I got here to Williams, and there was nothing like that here, so I took a class over the summer between freshman and sophomore year to learn how to teach this stuff, so sophomore year, I co-founded a club with a senior who had taken ballroom dancing at Oxford. I’ve also been hired by the community to teach ballroom dancing.
Have you guys done anything dance-related over the summer?
EF: This past summer, I worked for the School of American Ballet, which is the school that feeds into the New York City Ballet, which also has a huge connection to Williams.
SG: Robert Lipp, who is the president of our board of trustees, is also on the board of the New York City Ballet, which is why we’ve had them here.
EF: It was fun to work at the school, because I’ve been out of the ballet scene for a while, and now I was thrown back into the ballet world. If there’s any place to be near ballet, it’s there. It actually shocked me how close the School resembled the movie “Centerstage.” The Williams dance program isn’t very competitive, and it we all come from such different backgrounds, that it just shows how cool Chen and Dancers, a professional company, is, that they’re willing to take in these college kids, rehearse with them and put us all on a huge stage.