Learning the Art of Character Dance

By Courtney Roling

Every semester, a special guest takes part in the fall and spring dance concerts that consist of contemporary and classical dances presented by dance faculty and students. This fall semester CSU welcomed Professor Richard Wacko from the University of Utah Ballet Department as the guest choreographer in residence. Wacko earned his MFA in dance from the University of Utah and has also studied and practiced the art abroad in Canada and Europe.

During his residency at CSU, Wacko taught ‘character dance’— this will be one of the many unique and innovative dances performed during the 2012 Fall Dance Concert on Nov. 9 and 10.

“It is a sub-set of the ballet world and the emphasis is on stylized folk dance for the ballet stage,” said Wacko on what makes character dance so unique.

Character dance is largely of Eastern European influence and it is not as commonly performed in the United States, which makes it a little more complex and foreign for dancers learning it here. This type of dance is currently not a part of the normal curriculum at CSU, but it provided the special opportunity to bring in Wacko to teach dance students the technique.

As a guest technique teacher and choreographer, this semester has been Wacko’s first time visiting CSU. On working with the students on choreography, auditions, and lectures, he says it has been an excellent experience.

“The students worked very hard and were engaged,” said Wacko. “I enjoyed it!”

Although the character dance was a fun challenge for dancers to learn, it has been a long process of hard work from the beginning.

“The process starts with the faculty members deciding what they will be choreographing and who the guest artist may be for that semester/concert,” said Jane Slusarski-Harris, director of dance at CSU. “From there many individuals and teams are involved in putting it together: technical production and design, publicity and marketing, artistic direction, choreography and coaching, program design and scheduling, events management and direction, box office, and accounting.”

Ballet professor Carol Roderick, who works with the CSU Ballet Repertory Ensemble, came up with the idea of performing Swan Lake for the November concert. Swan Lake is one of the most popular performances known for its character dancing. There will be two short excerpts from Act Two—which is classical ballet—and Act Three—the character dancing.

Act Two is the famous lakeside scene with the white swan. It consists of two short dances, one called Les Cygnets (Small Swans), and the other called Big Swans; they are about six to seven minutes total. The Act Two excerpts are traditional settings of the choreography by Lev Ivanov.

Act Three is the ballroom scene, the celebration of when the prince is coming of age; it is also when the black swan appears. This performance will also consist of two short dances, the character dances. One dance, Mazurka, is Hungarian, while the other, Czardas, is a Polish dance. The Act Three dances were created for the dance students by Professor Wacko.

“I’ve always wanted to incorporate character dancing,” said Roderick. “It’s wonderful, lots of fun, entertaining, and doesn’t push forward the narrative, however it’s very rhythmically challenging.”

Students and faculty spend the entire semester up until the day of the show rehearsing and perfecting their pieces.

“When Professor Wacko came to CSU, he spent only three rehearsals setting the choreography and teaching it,” said Roderick. “After Wacko left, there have been rehearsals twice a week. We have been working on cleaning things up, music, and recording the performances.”

In past years, modern dance or contemporary movement guests are usually brought to CSU for the dance concerts. However this year is the first time for character dancing and a first-time visit for Wacko.

“We want to expose and train in different methods,” said Roderick, “and for many, it’s a first time exposure to a method like character dancing.”

The Ballet Repertory Ensemble will be doing the only classical ballet and character dance performances; the rest of the concert will consist of modern dances. Associate professor Chung-Fu Chang will not only be performing a solo, but a piece he choreographed for the Tour Dance Company will also be performed in the concert.

The group performance is titled “Forest” and is the opening dance from a 6-section dance work, titled The Lily. The piece was commissioned and world premiered by Verb Ballets in Cleveland, February 2012. The story of The Lily is based on the legends of the Taiwanese Rukai tribe, the mystery of the love between Princess Baleng and the Hundred-pace Snake deity. Choreographer Chung-Fu Chang studied Rukai culture, and transformed traditional symbols into the dance movements. The white lily is Rukai’s sacred flower that also use in the piece.  You will hear this beautiful music sung in the Rukai language that Rukai people sang hundreds of years ago.

Furthermore, Chang’s solo is still a work in progress and currently untitled. However, it is inspired from one of poems of the Classic of Poetry or what the Chinese call Shijing. It comprised of 305 poems and songs dating from the 10th to the 7th century BC, one of the great literary works of ancient China. The piece is a work about secrets, identity and finding one’s own language.

“The Fall Dance Concert is a wonderful opportunity for our students to work with faculty, guest artists, and staff in a professional learning environment,” said Slusarski-Harris. “The concert focuses on an exceptional performing arts experience for the participants and for the audiences.”