Adaobi Kanu '08 is a social activist who wants to use the storytelling potential of dance to build connections between people across the spectrum of physical ability. Ellen Gaintner '08, a classically trained dancer, hopes to join a professional ballet company. Their strikingly different approaches to the art were on display at the annual Tabitha Performance Group concert in Pembroke Studio in March.
The Tabitha Group, a student organization, funds performances of senior-thesis projects for one or two promising dance majors each year; the Tabitha performers choose their successors from among the junior dance majors.
This year's concert "is a great example of how flexible and individualized the dance major can be," says Gaintner. "It really reflects the differences in our backgrounds, training, and interests."
Gaintner's Bowing Out includes three short pieces—the pas de deux from the classic Les Sylphides, performed with Columbia University student Michael Novak; a modern composition of her own for four dancers (Gaintner, Marie Kagay '11, Marina Kec '11, and Megan Warres, Haverford '10); and another selection from the ballet repertory.
Kanu showed a single, long composition titled Together We Rise that explored domestic violence. She has developed the piece over the past year with her dancers: Lucy Edwards '08, Menda Francois '09, Crystal Fraser '11, and Court Malpass '09. The piece includes a poem written and performed by Shayna Israel '08.
The students came to the major from entirely different directions. Kanu, who hails from the Bronx, is a double major in dance and physics. Although she has always been interested in dance ("everybody dances," she says), she had never had an opportunity to study it until she came to Bryn Mawr. While she was in high school, a friend's father lost a limb, and Kanu became interested in prosthetic design and engineering; she saw physics as a route to that goal.
During her second semester at Bryn Mawr, Kanu's latent interest in dance was piqued by an introductory classroom course that surveyed dance practices across cultures and historical eras. The following year, she participated in the Racism Dance Theater Workshop, a group that choreographed collaboratively. That project and a composition course cemented her commitment to the dance major.
As a final project for her composition course, Kanu choreographed a piece that explored her experience of a friend's death. Faced with the prospect of performing it before an audience, Kanu feared that she wouldn't be able to maintain her composure.
"I was really afraid that I would break down in the middle of the performance," she recalls. "As it turned out, I made it through to the end, but everyone else in the room was crying."
"I thought, 'Wow. Here I am with no formal training, but I've really reached people.' That's when I realized what a powerful medium dance is, and I wanted to apply that potential to working for social change."
That summer, she did intensive study with Axis Dance, a professional company that integrates dancers with and without disabilities.
"It really challenged not only the way I think about dance, but the way I think about the human body and its expressive potential," Kanu says. She was offered a position with the company, but decided that she preferred to pursue her own path as a choreographer rather than joining a company as a dancer. She has since choreographed and performed several pieces in concerts at Bryn Mawr and done an intensive summer study with the Bill T. Jones Company.
Gaintner, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, has been studying dance since she was three years old, "if you count those first couple of years when we just sort of ran around with scarves," she says. She has attended intensive summer ballet programs since she was 15, and while she was applying to college, she also did the audition circuit.
"I got a couple of offers for apprenticeships, but I wasn't quite ready to commit to a company because once you do that, you stop studying and learning and basically just rehearse all the time," Gaintner explains.
She spent a year studying dance at London Studio Centre. She loved it, but she came to Bryn Mawr "determined not to major in dance," she says. "But by the end of my sophomore year, when it was time to declare, I realized that I just couldn't live without dance."
Majoring in dance has nudged her in new directions, she says.
"There's always an element of critical analysis in the dance history courses we take. I think that's great because writing about dance helps me look at a dance work as a whole, beyond the individual competencies of the dancers. Last year I took a course in dance criticism, and I really enjoyed it. Since then, I've done a bit of writing for an online dance publication in London.
"I might consider a career as a dance critic," she says. "I am just so passionate about dance, and I'd like to be able to share that enthusiasm with everybody."
Composition classes were also a challenge, Gaintner says. "I had never considered myself a choreographer, but composition courses were required by the major, and I found that by the end of the process I really enjoyed it."
"My compositions tend to be in a modern mode," she says. "It's not the idiom that I'm most comfortable in as a dancer, but when I try to compose classical ballet, I find that all the years of training tend to suggest certain combinations of steps that I can't get away from. Creating a new vocabulary of steps and gestures is very freeing."
Gaintner's original composition "doesn't have a story or a theme; it's really just about dancing for the sake of dancing." She says she's deeply grateful to her dancers: "I'm not sure that I would have committed that much time to a stranger's thesis project."
In sharp contrast, Kanu's piece is all about the stories. She collected them from her dancers—all narratives that they had experienced or witnessed.
"Domestic violence is everywhere," she says. "We've all seen something, heard something, experienced something, turned our heads away from something."
"I was so moved by the way the dancers began to open up, to talk about things they would probably never discuss otherwise," she says.
The Tabitha performances are free, but space in Pembroke Studio is limited and reservations are encouraged. To reserve a seat, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 610-526-5208.
Posted 2/28/2008 by Claudia Ginanni
Michael Novak and Ellen Gaintner