Dancers to get squirrely at spring concerts

New York choreographer Kate Skarpetowska creates fast-paced 'Squirrel Suite' for KU dance company

Kate Skarpetowska came to Kansas University by way of New York City compliments of a Broadway flop en route from Warsaw, Poland.

As roundabout journeys go, hers has been fruitful.

In her late 20s, she already has toured with a Broadway show, studied at the prestigious New York High School for the Performing Arts and Juilliard, and earned a spot as one of 10 members of the nationally acclaimed Parsons Dance Company.

Along the way, she's picked up some expertise that she shared with KU dance students during a weeklong residency in February. Six dancers will perform "Squirrel Suite," a fast-paced series of dances Skarpetowska choreographed to music by Squirrel Nut Zippers, at the University Dance Company's upcoming spring concert.

"It's very high-energy and very fast," she says. "But it's very light at the same time."

Skarpetowska discovered dance at 13, "pretty late for a girl," she says. But dance opportunities in Poland were scarce outside of the state-sponsored ballet company during Skarpetowska's youth, she explains. So she got her start with a couple of ex-ballroom dancers who started a small school and company that offered more diverse styles of dance.

"We'd watch videos from the West and just sort of see what was out there. We would put out these performances -- jazz, modern, whatever we could come up with," she recalls. "It was very amateur."

Still, she learned enough to be selected as a dancer in the cast of "Metro," a Polish creation billed as a cross between "Hair" and "A Chorus Line," at the age of 15. Although the show was a hit in her homeland -- and has enjoyed success in Russia -- it sunk in 1992 after 24 previews and 13 performances on the Great White Way.

But Skarpetowska's mother and diplomat father were stationed in New York at the time, so the fledgling 15-year-old dancer stayed in the states to attend school.

She auditioned for David Parsons during her senior year at Juilliard and began dancing with the company in 1999.

"I enjoy his rep," Skarpetowska says of Parsons. "It's very challenging and athletic, so he's been very influential (to Skarpetowska's own choreography)."

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Courtney Kuhlen/lawrence.com photo

Kate Skarpetowska, choreographer and Parsons Dance Company member, works with Kansas University student dancers during a weeklong residency in February. The students will perform Skarpetowska's "Squirrel Suite" during the University Dance Company's spring concert.
photo Audio: Kate Skarpetowska on the mission of Parsons Dance Company
photo Audio: Kate Skarpetowska on her style of choreography

And how does modern dance with a professional company compare to her experience on the Broadway stage?

"I think constant dancing was really what I always wanted to do, so in a way it's a little bit more fulfilling," she says. "Obviously, you know, you compare salaries from one to the other and it's like night and day. Broadway obviously has a lot more to offer as far as compensation and benefits and stuff like that, although the Parsons Dance Company does really well, too."

Skarpetowska met KU dance director Jerel Hilding at a reception in February 2003, when the Parsons company last performed in Lawrence. Not long after that meeting, they arranged the residency that resulted in "Squirrel Suite."

In a more subdued turn from Skarpetowska's squirrely fusion of swing, jazz and modern forms, KU faculty member Patrick Suzeau's recreation of "Sonata for Two Cellos" also will be highlighted on the spring program. The solo was choreographed by modern dance legend Jose Limón late in his career and rarely has been seen since its premiere in 1961. In fact, Suzeau is the first modern dancer to perform the work since Limón himself.

Also on the program will be two pieces by student choreographers Amy Hutchings and Beau Hancock, both seniors. In addition, KU faculty members have contributed works to the show. Suzeau's "Song" combines contemporary dance with elements of East Indian classical dance. Muriel Cohan's "After Images" probes the interaction between five people coming out of a desperate situation. Willie Lenoir has expanded his exploration of the "Forest Runners" theme from previous concerts. And Joan Stone travels back to the early 18th century with a reconstruction of five dances by French and English masters.

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