The raw emotion and visceral power of modern dance will take audience members on a journey through history and human introspection as the University of Oklahoma’s Contemporary Dance Oklahoma (CDO) takes the stage April 5-14.
Though each production of the OU School of Dance offers its audiences a unique experience, artistic director and choreographer Austin Hartel said that for him, this show is crafted for a simple, audience-centric purpose.
“My goal is simple: I want people to come see the show, and like it so much that they’ll come see modern dance again,” Hartel said. “That’s why I like that it’s an eclectic show, there’s something for everyone.”
Structured in a series of suites or individual sketches, CDO departs from the linear narrative story-telling of traditional ballets and instead presents a compilation of autonomous vignettes exploring anything from cultural commentary to abstract human themes like habit.
“It’s not so much that the audience understands a story, it’s that they were taken somewhere — they went there, they came back,” Hartel said.
This presentation style capitalizes on modern dance’s unique capacity to apply itself to virtually any music, setting or taste. Simply put, Assistant Artistic Director and choreographer Derrick Minter said modern dance creates a show with something for everyone that is deeply expressive and affecting for both viewer and dancer.
“That’s what’s interesting about modern dance compared to ballet — the dancer has the chance to be free to express who they are, their personal experience, connect with what’s going on in the moment,” Minter said. “It’s not a fairy tale, and I think audience members can connect with the varieties of movement.”
True to the broad range of both modern dance and CDO’s style, this year’s show takes audiences into the golden age of jazz with Minter’s “Elegance in Three” and “Suite Ellington,” moving into the thematic exploration of Hartel’s “Syncopated,” “Working Flesh” and “Tethered.”
Finally, excerpts of guest choreographer Donald McKayle’s “Songs of the Disinherited” will embody messages both devastating and gloriously invigorating as it celebrates songs of the Black diaspora in the Americas.
“I want to present something to connect younger audiences with generations of the past with Duke Ellington, bring back these treasured artists and help younger people understand why this is classic, while connecting with older audience members who remember the era of the music,” Minter said.
Prominent in CDO 2013’s various suites will be choreography showcasing the dual strength and delicate beauty of female dancers.
“I’ve always liked to choreograph dances that are really strong for women — you’ll see that in ‘Syncopated,’ the women are very powerful,” Hartel said.
Megan Storey, CDO performer and OU School of Dance senior, said this feminine focus coupled with the subject matter of the 2013 pieces has provided a singular experience of growth as a dancer and artist.
“CDO has directly affected my technical ability as a dancer but indirectly shaped how I approach new and difficult things, work ethic and growing knowledge of what it takes to be a professional dancer — how to persevere and be an agreeable and adaptable dancer for choreographers,” Storey said.
“I love performing all of the pieces but one of my favorites is ‘Angelitos Negros’ from ‘Songs of the Disinherited.’ It’s a female solo for a woman that embodies outrage against prejudice — the solo is strong, nurturing, protective, and loving, but simultaneously stern and powerful,” Storey said. “It is extremely beautiful, and the intention behind the movement has healing properties that have touched me in an indescribable way.”
Though much of CDO’s subject matter is complex and manifested in careful integration of music and symbolism, the overpowering emotion each piece will evoke will not require audience members to pick up on nuance.
“I can think as cerebrally as possible about my choreography, but I don’t expect audience members to notice all of that,” Hartel said. “I expect them to be viscerally moved by the work — they could love it, they could hate it, it could make them cry or laugh but ultimately they leave with an experience that they remember positively so that next time there’s a performance, they want to come back.”
Performances are scheduled 8 p.m. April 11-13 and 3 p.m. April 14, in the Rupel J. Jones Theatre, 563 Elm St.
Tickets prices are $22 for adults and $18 for senior adults, OU faculty, and staff and military, and $14 for students. Tickets may be purchased by calling 405-325-4101, or in person at the OU Fine Arts Box Office, 500 W. Boyd St., in the Catlett Music Center.