Strange beach dwellers inspire KU professor's latest dance

Works on student company's fall concerts evoke nature

Dance may be the most fleeting of art forms.

No matter how much life dancers bring to a stage through leaps, spins, gestures and lifts, all that remains when the choreographer's creation ends is a memory of the movement.


Earl Richardson/Special to the Journal-World

Ellie Goudie-Averill leaps through space during a spring performance of "Hombre Errante." The work, choreographed by Kansas University dance instructors Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau will have encore performances at the University Dance Company's fall concerts on Thursday and Friday.

Kansas University dance instructor Joan Stone flirts with that notion of evanescence in a dance she created for the University Dance Company's fall concerts.

"The Bathers That Disappeared," which will be performed Thursday and Friday evenings at the Lied Center, was inspired by Lawrence photographer Carolyn Young's images of ancient tree trunks that appeared on the Oregon coast one summer and disappeared the next.

"I looked at her photographs and I said, 'They look like ancient bathers,'" Stone recalls. "Some were leaning. Some are bent over. Some are clustered. Some are alone. It just looked like bathers.

Stone's lyrical dance borrows its imagery from the undulating motion of water. Five female dancers will perform the piece in dull satin gowns finished in sections of seafoam green, teal, royal blue and purple. The haunting, circular music, written by Sudanese composer Hamza El Din and played by the Kronos Quartet, reinforces the water theme.

Past Event

University Dance Company

  • Thursday, November 4, 2004, 7:30 p.m.
  • Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive, KU campus, Lawrence
  • All ages


"He wrote this piece of music called 'Waterwheel' in memory of a waterwheel in his village in the Sudan, which was submerged by the Aswan Dam project," Stone says. "That's, again, a disappearance."

Young's most haunting photo from the tree series -- the one which prompted Stone to create the dance -- zeroes in on a barnacle-covered trunk that resembles a mermaid. It left Stone feeling a bit nostalgic.

"Carolyn also took pictures of seaweed and barnacles and, oh my goodness, I was just transported back to my childhood, which has also disappeared," Stone adds, laughing.


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Kansas University Dance Company members, counterclockwise from front, Morgan Fogarty, Ãllison Kant, Kristin Vaglio and Amy Hutchings rehearse "The Bathers That Disappeared," a dance by KU dance instructor Joan Stone. The piece will be performed this week at the company's fall concerts.

Flights of fancy

In addition to "The Bathers That Disappeared," the company also will perform new works by other KU dance faculty, as well as a new ballet by Michael Simms, a Leawood choreographer who set his dance on the troupe during a late-September residency.

In "Skylife," nine women dancers capture the qualities of birds by soaring and sweeping through space in patterns suggestive of flight. The dance takes its name from the title of the first movement of the composition to which it's set. Simms has long been enamored with the music of David Balakrishnan, a member of the Turtle Island String Quartet, and has been waiting for "the right opportunity and the right dancers" to perform a work set to a Balakrishnan piece.

"The choreography is based on classical ballet technique, but there are indications of flight and lightness throughout," Simms says. "I hope that is conveyed through the movement."

Simms says working with the student dancers was a "marvelous" experience.

"I was so happy to have this opportunity," he says. "My wife, who is the founder and director of the Westport Ballet, and I have been attending their concerts consistently for the last several years -- since moving to Kansas City, actually. We just thought that they were doing a marvelous job of training dancers, and it was a great opportunity to be able to work with them."

Aside from a twice-weekly advanced ballet class Simms teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he is retired. But while active, he danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and studied at the Royal Danish Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. He taught at the International Academy of Dance in Cologne, Germany, and directed the Webster College dance department and Dance Theatre in St. Louis before joining the faculty at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.

Most recently, he co-directed the now-defunct Westport Ballet Theatre with his wife, Elizabeth Hard.

Simms says his creative process relies heavily on music.

"I just sit down with that music and listen to it and listen to it and listen to it for weeks and months on end until I know that score inside and out, and I just let that speak to me," he says. "It has worked pretty successfully in the past."

However Simms left breathing room in "Skylife" so he could capitalize on the individual talents of the KU dancers.

"There are really no principal or solo dancers in the piece," he says, "but there are a few dancers that I drew upon that have more prominent parts."

Encore performance

Conversely, KU dance director Jerel Hilding's "Prelude" relies entirely on the strengths of veteran company members Rachel Moses and Matt Abbick. Set to two "Preludes" by George Gershwin, a solo for Moses precedes a duet for her and Matt Abbick, both senior dance majors.

A journey through wooded terrain is the impetus behind Willie Lenoir's "Forest Runners," which is set to music of the same title by David Arkenstone and built around elaborate movement interactions among five dancers.

And a work that had its premiere at the company's spring concerts returns for encore performances this fall. "Hombre Errante" ("Wandering Man"), choreographed by associate professors of dance Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau, is based on Quechua Indian poetry and set to an unaccompanied choral score composed by Gabriela Lena Frank and performed by the KU Chamber Choir. The five movements create an Andean journey, performed by 12 dancers, featuring Suzeau as the wandering man.

An excerpt from the Journal-World's review of the spring performance gives a taste of what to expect:

"Cohan/Suzeau's signature mixture of staccato and smooth, give and go infused the piece with something electric, and Suzeau danced the solo role with precision and riveting energy."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.