Terpsichore’s Turn of Phrase Dance Company of Montana gracefully nails 2016 performance

Terpsichore Dance Company of Montana is made of grit and iron,of passing bodies and bare feet, of chills and electricity, of heartbeats, tears and of tributes.

This amazing collective of dancers perform just once a year, a show that takes more than six months to prepare. Founder and main choreographer Ricki Feeley estimated Terpsichore’s annual show, which took place March 5 at the Babcock Theatre, was a culmination of more than 700 hours of rehearsal time.

The enormity of scale that these dancers undertake is phenomenal. In each dance phrase, they encapsulate grace with backbone. They are resolute in their movements, a feeling I was hardly able to capture in photo, but none-the-less, here are some images from the performance.

For more on Terpsichore and their process, check out my interview with Feeley: Trust on Display

Trust on display Terpsichore dancers tell the story of connection

For Ricki Feeley, dance is personal. She groups movement into phrases the way a writer tells a story. “Most of movement I create is based on how I am feeling,” she said. “It’s a sympathetic response.”

An advanced modern technical dancer and founder of Terpsichore Dance Company of Montana, Feeley makes it easy to get lost in dance. She immerses her audience in the story that body can create, inspired by her own life experiences.

Feeley creates solitude and a sense of aloneness in her work, but it’s never long-lived. Brought to life by Terpsichore dancers, her dances erupt in mass movement, telling the story of connection that is required of dancers moving together and falling completely into one another.

This Saturday (March 5), members of Terpsichore take to the Babcock stage to perform Feeley’s vision, a series of choreographed pieces on loss and grief, of celebration and joy, and of fantasy and dreams that took more than six months to perfect. Audiences have two chances to catch the show at the Babcock Theatre during a 1 p.m. matinee and an evening performance at 7:30 p.m.

For many members, they’ve been working on these movements since last summer, meeting weekly and as often as many as five days a week leading up to the annual performance.

“It looks a little frantic right now,” Feeley commented during one of their final rehearsals. “It seems to fall apart before it comes together.” Rhythmically, the dancers rehearse, counting their steps out loud. Each movement is a number among the whirl of churning feet, flicking ankles, and nude legs.

Observing as dancers continue to run the routine, Feeley can see what happens as a whole. She follows each gesture, witnessing what the dancers can’t see when they’re in the midst—the collective whole of the piece, the audience’s view.

Whenever possible, dancers look to the large mirror that runs the entirety of the studio’s back wall. Watching the synchronicity of their lines, it’s as though they’re looking out to an imagined audience.

A dancer in the front, Maribel Schaff, reaches to another dancer, Morgan Shaw, and rolls her into a spin as though Shaw were weightless. Turning her like a floating wheel, Schaff seems to be completely unaware of gravity.

To have such connection and the ability to manipulate another person, Schaff said it comes down to trust. “You have to completely support your weight and give up to the other person. You have to trust each other a lot.”

Kate Blakeslee, who joined Terpischore in 2012, said she’s driven to participate because of what she’s able to create with her fellow dancers.

“I think creating something with a group of people is one of the most powerful things we can do with our lives, and this is my opportunity to do that,” Blakeslee said.

Terpsichore’s eighth production in six years will feature 12 dancers, including Feeley. Many are original members. What was once just a hobby for these women has grown into a nonprofit dance company staging elaborate, extensive dances that take half the year to finalize.

There are no paychecks. These dancers come together to create without financial compensation. Though their time is donated, each dancer signs a yearly contract committing to the process.

“I didn’t foresee any of this,” said Feeley, who founded Terpsichore in Missoula while studying dance at Montana State University. She obtained a BFA in dance with choreography and performance as her emphasis.

In Missoula, Feeley staged many shows as part of her dance major. When she relocated to Billings, she started an adult dance class. This collective of like-minded dancers were interested in performing for an audience, so Feeley thought, “Let’s do a little show.”

Terpsichore members practice at Montana Dance Center located on Daniel Street. The center, which opened in January after relocating from Moore Lane, was once an old garage. Garage walls and cement floors were converted to dancing studios with sprung flooring and a “marley” dance covering flown in from California, which gives the floor its spring.

Many of Terpsichore’s members teach at the center and get together after lessons to run through their pieces. The space is provided for Terpsichore to rehearse at no charge. Here, dancers have the room they need to prep for the stage.

Such space is necessary for Terpsichore pieces, constructed with expansiveness and a freedom of movement.

“I want it to be real,” Feeley said. “I have a huge appreciation for ballet, but it was all smoke in mirrors. You couldn’t move the way you felt, but instead had to do it same way as the person next to you.”

Feeley’s choreography has flow. It’s not rigid and formulaic; rather it is raw and real. Like water, it’s smooth and glossy, yet it contains great power. From movement to movement, there’s a sense that chaos could happen at any moment, yet each position creates a peaceful calm before the next.

When choreographing this year’s show, Feeley wanted to convey the way bodies move and feel. She improvised many of the pieces, evolving movement with fellow dancers to construct dance with authentic movement.

“When you try to chorographic (a dance) on your own, and set it on your own, and then come in and teach it, you put such a constriction on your expression,” Feeley said. “With Terpsichore, I can create movement on the spot without having to think too much about it. It’s been a beautiful evolvement.”

Directing 11 women in such expansive, impactful dances isn’t easy, and as the main chorographer, Feeley is in a constant leadership role. “I’m sure it gets tiring, me critiquing people all the time,” she said. “But I always treat people with kindness and respect, and the girls have such good attitudes.” There’s trust behind each movement, a sense that each dancer is looking out for the next.

“Dancers have to trust each other implicitly,” said Krista Pasini, one of the original members of the company. “As dancers, you are paint on a canvas. You are (the choreographer’s) artwork. You are going to get molded or lifted, or have an armpit in your face.”

Armpits included, the many shapes and bends of Terpsichore dancers portray beauty and strength in the female form. Each dancer’s body is a skyscraper of graceful power, from richly thick thighs to slender legs, from stout or long torsos to the limbs long.

Watching rehearsal, it feels as though the dancers could levitate. Their arms descend—timed to music—and rise again as a bird flapping. Melting, each dancer drops to the ground, and upon rising, their heads the last to arrive, they appear like warriors. Dropping their thighs parallel to the ground, they hover their arms skyward.

Moving with impactful music is a fundamental part of Terpsichore’s performances, yet some of the most compelling parts of a Terpsichore piece is created in silence, where the only sounds in the theater are of breath and body—the inhale and exhale of movement, the sound of joints and the give of the floor.

“I love to hear dancer’s breath,” Feeley said. “I tell my dancer’s not to worry about hiding it. Let me hear how the lungs get dispersed. Everyone appreciates it.”

It’s common when watching a Feeley creation to hold your own breath. There’s a feeling of anxiousness following each gesture. In movement, you sense your own longing and loss, but also a collective joy and exuberance when watching the dancers interact.

In each turn of the dance, you’re part of a greater adventure. Trust is on display. As each phrase of dance passes, you’ll find yourself silently cheering on the dancers. You’ll celebrate with them, imagining yourself in the story.

The Stories of Lula Washington Company brings repertoire of modern dance to Billings

Our bodies tell many stories. Stories of heritage, of pride and of culture. Of enthusiasm and exuberance, anguish and remorse. Our bodies shelter our love and hold our loss. We are etched with scars from violence, abuse, addiction. We are pyramids of redemption and choice.

We all have our stories to tell. Lula Washington tells hers through dance. Founder, creative director, and main choreographer of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Washington spoke to me prior to the company’s appearance in Billings.

“The works I create… are a part of who I am and where I come from.” When she was first exposed to modern dance, she knew. This would be her life’s work.  Read the full interview here >>>

Dance performances by Lula Washington Dance Theatre were at times jolting, at others so vivacious it seemed strange that we were not leaping to our feet (ahhh, the reservations of polite audiences in theater seats). I left feeling like I’d been witness to the most private moments in someone’s life.

Dance Stories Modern dance pioneer Lula Washington motivates and captivates with movement

Lula Washington didn’t grow up going to ballet on Saturday mornings. So when she first saw live dance, she was mesmerized.

“It was never part of my upbringing,” Washington said. She was the oldest of eight children growing up in poverty south Los Angeles. “The only dancing we did was in the living room around the radio or television.”

Washington was 22—a junior studying nursing at Harbor Community College—when a professor took her class to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. While watching the performers, Washington realized she wanted to dance professionally. Her application to UCLA’s school of dance, however, was rejected, because she was “too old” to begin a dance career.

Reflecting back, Washington said, “I did not need to allow my goal and my quest and my desire to dance hinge upon someone else’s opinion. I just felt very strongly that (dance) was what I really wanted to do, and decided I was still going got pursue it.”

Washington appealed the decision and was granted admission. She established the Black Dance Association at UCLA and founded the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre, later renamed to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, in 1980 with her husband, Erwin. Their goal: to provide a creative outlet for minority dance artists in the inner city.

“Part of the reason I did not discover dance growing up is that I don’t recall it being readily available to me in my community. Neither were the arts prominent,” Washington said.

The contemporary modern dance company performs globally Washington’s own experimental works, as well as the works of legendary pioneers in African-American dance. Washington is the founder, creative director, and main choreographer.

“The works I create happen because of what I have experienced personally in the life that I have lived so far,” Washington said. “They are a part of who I am and where I come from.” The company’s choreography includes ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, fusion movement styles, and traditional African dance.

In addition to Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Washington established an inner city-based school in South Los Angeles.

“It is very important that young people explore the art of moment, whether they want to be a dancer or not, because dance is a very healing art to explore at all ages,” Washington said. “It was extremely important to be able to provide this in my community.”

The organization holds an after school dance program that provides low cost and free dance classes to neighborhood children. The program, called “I Do Dance, Not Drugs!” has taught dance to more than 45,000 inner-city students.

“I believe that all the arts play a key role in motivating young people,” Washington said. “When youth have the opportunity to take part in the arts, they will naturally gravitate to what it is that will touch and motive them.”

Lula Washington Dance Theatre Company company’s performances—thought-provoking and high energy—are designed to motivate and inspire. Dancers perform works from the company’s repertoire at the Alberta Bair Theater on Wednesday, Nov. 4.

“We enjoy the opportunity to share our dance stories and be a source of inspiration, as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was for me when I got a chance to see them,” Washington said.

Prior to the performance, Washington will give a talk on Tuesday, Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Billings Public Library. Tickets at AlbertaBairTheater.org.

Above photo courtesy Alberta Bair Theater: Lula Washington, at left, and members of Lula Washington Dance Theatre pose with students at Billings West High School on Nov. 2, 2015.

{UPDATE} View the gallery from the show here >>