Dance Dimensions Students To Follow Famed Footsteps

Alvin Ailey Performers Will Conduct Class For County Troupe

June 23, 1991|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Staff writer

The teen-age students of Dance Dimensions seemed to fly as they sweated in 90-plus degree heat in a Columbia studio.

But their concernwas not the temperature. On Friday, they will be evaluated by one ofthe nation's most prestigious modern dance companies.

Performers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which will open the 11-day Columbia Festival of the Arts Thursday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, will run a two-hour class for about 35 Howard County dancers.

About a dozen members of Dance Dimensions will be among the artists to be instructed in the Ailey technique of contemporarymovement, when they sweat it out again in the master class at Slayton House in the Village of Wilde Lake.

Among other participating dance companies will be Kinetics Dance Theatre and Eva Anderson's Baltimore Dance Theatre.

The workshop's instructors are affiliated withAiley's New York-based company, noted for its blend of African-American dance and music with European-American influences.

"Dance is handed down from people to people," said Marilyn Byers, Dance Dimensions' founder and director. "You can't learn it from a book."

The 42-year-old Byers said she expects her students will develop an appreciation and understanding of the Ailey style and aesthetics.

Although she doesn't know what format the master class will take, Byers saidtwo instructors and demonstrators probably will perform several patterns across the floor, asking the students to repeat them until they reach a certain level of proficiency.

One movement Byers' group isconcentrating on to prepare for the workshop uses the Horton technique, named after the late Ailey's teacher.

Called the "White Horse," the dance incorporates the image of a white horse moving across thebeach.

"Ailey's dancers will probably do something with high energy, involving leaps and jumps," she said. "My students have all done leg swings, but the way they will do it now will be specific to his style, with an Alvin Ailey twist."

Byers explained that while ballet is "very stylized," modern dance is not. "We try to continue that legacy of Isadora Duncan, who rebelled against ballet, to use the bodyto create the ultimate natural movement," she said.

Preparations for Friday's master class, said Byers, will be the same as for any other class. "We will come early to prepare mentally and physically. The dancers will stake out their space in the room and warm up for about 45 minutes."

"The class is creating an arts community," said 18-year-old Kim Shipp, one of Byers' students.

More than 100 people are expected to observe Friday's class. Viewers need tickets, which are free.

"They can watch the dancers work and gain an understandingthat they won't necessarily get from watching a finished performance," said Lynne Nemeth, 34, festival managing director.

For the third year in a row, festival organizers have coordinated outreach programs -- including master classes, open rehearsals and informal discussions -- between performing artists and patrons.

"We want to show art in the making, give people a chance to see how it all comes together," Nemeth said.

Byers, whose company will perform six dances Sunday evening at the Kittamaqundi Lakefront, hopes to use the workshop to assess her class.

"I want to see where they stack up," she said."These kids are going to be competing for scholarships. They need tobe prepared."

Most of the students are enthusiastic about the upcoming master class, hoping to expand their repertoire.

"The ethnicity is what makes it unique and special. I think they should have a taste of it," Byers said.

Two of Byers' students sampled Ailey's technique when the company conducted a workshop at Morgan State University in the fall, during the Ailey troupe's yearlong residency in the state.

The Maryland State Council of the Arts, which spent more than $100,000 to bring the renowned performers to the communities, encouraged the Columbia Festival to arrange a master class.

"The movement was different than what we're used to," said Kim, a Columbia resident and recent graduate of Wilde Lake High School.

"But it's goodto be exposed to that technique," she added. We haven't had as much of that in class, but by the end of the workshop we clicked into it. I am looking forward to Friday's class because I know what it will belike."

Columbia's 15-year-old Jill Harris, a junior at Oakland Mills High School, has reservations about the experience. "I enjoyed itbecause it was new, but it was a little tense. It was so totally different than what I am used to. I found it intimidating."

Thursday's performance by the Ailey troupe will mark the first time in more than a decade that Merriweather is playing host to a dance company. "It's great to have this at the festival, to bring back dance to the Merriweather the way we were able to bring back the BSO," Nemeth said.

To accommodate the troupe, Merriweather is laying vinyl floor covering over wood-sprung floors and renting lighting and sound systems.

Byers, who first saw Ailey in her native West Virginia 25 years ago, found the performance inspiring enough to pursue a career in dance.

She started the Howard County Gifted and Talented Dance Program in 1978.

It evolved into Dance Dimensions four years later. The young dancers attend 90-minute classes four times a week during the school year and five times in the summer. "Then we rehearse till whenever," she said.

Byers said 99 percent of her students who pursue dance professionally succeed, adding, "I have to do something about that 1 percent."

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