Jan 16 2020
By: ROGER LEVESQUE Updated: January 16, 2020
Reposted from the Edmonton Journal | View Original Article
“I wouldn’t call myself a professional dancer but Orchesis has that professional feel, and that’s one reason it has been a starting place for so many professional careers.” – Orchesis chair Andrea Gish
It’s not customary to call them so, but the agile, fine-toned bodies of dancers are essentially athletes by another name.
It’s not so unusual then to find out that one of the first organizations in Edmonton to offer a bridge between amateur, entry-level modern dance and professional dance aspirations started in the University of Alberta’s athletics department.
Welcome to Orchesis Dance Performance Group (ODPG), originally part of the U of A Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, now officially part of Campus & Community Recreation. This weekend Orchesis mounts its annual showcase Dance Motif for the 55th year.
You can imagine the vast landscape of amateur dance clubs and schools that makes Edmonton a busy dance city today was far smaller 55 years ago. (Even Alberta Ballet wasn’t officially incorporated as a professional company until 1966 after its official founding in 1958 in Calgary.)
Orchesis was founded by Dorothy Harris — a professor in what was then the U of A’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation — back in 1964. She was following the lead of American mentors who started a loose network of similar groups at the college level, promoting the idea that modern dance training could be a significant part of physical and spiritual fitness. Today there’s a dance studio at the U of A named after Harris.
No one could have predicted how the company would become a seeding ground for local dance initiatives.
While Orchesis has encouraged generations of dancers from all walks of life to get involved at an entry level for personal benefit, it’s significant how the organization has sent many on to professional careers — masters like Brian Webb and Peggy Baker for instance — and inspired new companies like Mile Zero Dance and Good Women Dance Collective to take root.
To learn more I spoke with Andrea Gish, chairperson of the ODPG, who joined up to dance with them back in 2003.
“It’s one of the only programs in Edmonton to focus on modern dance,” she explains, “though we have evolved to include jazz dance and ballet as well. But we’re one of the only programs to provide recreational adult dance and professional performance experience. Now we have folks who started with us, who have gone on to careers as choreographers.”
The group is open to dancers age 16 and up, and to be part of the annual Orchesis Dance Motif show they must have taken one previous class with Orchesis, classes now under the umbrella of Campus Recreation. Currently that includes dancers in their fifties and sixties — individuals of all stripes. Gish reports that roughly 75 percent are women, and membership even includes individuals with disabilities. Many come from the university community but that’s not a requirement.
“One of our longstanding dancers was a computer engineer and a complete beginner when he started with us, but he has honed his skills to such a professional level over maybe 15 years with Orchesis that it’s beautiful to watch him dance. One of our choreographers created a piece based on what she saw in her microbiology lab here at the university.”
Some 60 dancers from beginner to advanced levels will perform in the upcoming show Jan. 24 and 25. Orchesis invites a range of students and seasoned professional choreographers to come in and bring original pieces with them. In previous years the show has had a cast of up to 80 or 90 dancers.
“They come from different backgrounds but everybody gets the same professional touch, working with a lighting crew, stage managers and cues, and technical rehearsals alone go on for a week beforehand. Early rehearsals go back to September.”
This year guest choreographer Laura Krewski — a jazz dance alumna of Orchesis — is one of 11 choreographers involved in creating works that will fill out the two-hour program. Some other dance makers include Emily Noton, and Kathleen Hughes will be directing a group of senior members called Initial 6.
“Edmonton has such a good mix of cultural styles and folks with different backgrounds in dance that it’s really interesting to be part of. I think Orchesis gives an avenue to folks of any level of experience who aren’t interested in competitive dance programs, who want to perform and to do it professionally. We don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what a dancer looks like. I wouldn’t call myself a professional dancer but Orchesis has that professional feel, and that’s one reason it has been a starting place for so many professional careers.”
Orchesis Dance Motif 2020 happens 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 24-25 at Myer Horowitz Theatre in the Students’ Union Building at the University of Alberta. Tickets are $25 in advance by reservation from Orchesis or $30 at the door.
Do your kids live to dance?
Entry-level dance schools make a splash for their devoted dancers at the annual Dance Spectacular Showcase, hosted by the Alberta Dance Educators Association, happening 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1 at the Winspear Centre.
Students from nearly 20 separate dance schools participate in the show with all styles of dance featured.
Tickets are $30 in advance from the ADEA at http://www.adea.ca.
Orchesis Dance Motif 2020
When: Jan. 24-25 at 8 p.m.
Where: Myer Horowitz Theatre
Tickets: $25 in advance from Orchesis, $30 at the door