UNC School of the Arts 2023 Spring Dance featured world premieres by budding choreographers and the much-anticipated rebirth of Merce Cunningham‘s Travelogue. Curated by new Dean of the School of Dance, Endalyn Outlaw (née Taylor), Spring Dance exemplified the strength of the two distinguished ballet and contemporary programs. In the majestic green and gold Stevens Center, which will see a 28-million-dollar renovation this coming fall, high school and undergraduate students showcased UNC School of the Arts’ high caliber of athleticism and artistry in full bloom. As a UNCSA graduate in Contemporary Dance (1987-1991), it was a privilege to return to the school that cultivated my contemporary dance training.

The opening work, Outlaw’s Shostakovich Suite, was recreated for UNCSA ballet students. Master composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite set the tone for a robust, fast paced program. Bright colors filled the stage, with three ornate dazzling chandeliers setting the mood of an elegant ballroom. With light pink classical tutus designed and created by Jenna Anderson (Design & Production ’22), the light scheme perfectly matched the deep purple embroidered bodices worn by both male and female dancers. High French twists adorned with diamond headband tiaras added an elegant touch. Outlaws’ classical choreography matched the sweeping Shostakovich four movements: Lyric Waltz, Scherzo, Limpid Stream, a beautiful pas de deux with Dana Sheldon and Sam Stutz, and Finale Waltz with the entire ensemble. Challenging duet work with partnered pirouettes, high développés, and grande jetés were executed with silent soft landings; Outlaw’s choreography is classical ballet at its finest, not without the support of faculty member and rehearsal assistant Mikhail Tchoupakov. The pristinely trained and well-rehearsed ensemble made this work fresh and thrilling. The dancers exuded a joyous performance quality. Dean Outlaw’s inaugural work delivered the elegant symmetry of music and dance blooming to life.

DANCERS: Nadia Avery, Margaux Beller, Alea Brown, Logan Byrd, Liv Cacanindin, Kayla Estipular, Katherine Nettles, Nifa Omondi, Daria Prokhnitski, Allie Roos, Madeleine Smith, Jayla Thacker, Emma Cilke, Dana Sheldon, Elsa Herr, Amanda Ovitt, Natalie Taylor, Jacob Duehring, Liam Hutt, Jett Lecamu, Julian Pecoraro, Sam Stutz, Lexie Campbell, Ella Carbrey, Skylar Eads, Kyla Guay, Anna Horton, Joanna Holden, Sophie Kanzler, Lilith Marchetti, Audrey Cannon, Abigail Pontius, Wendy Proeschel, Madison Wilson, Evelyn Beard, Tess Cogley, Emma Cilke, Vanessa Meikle, and Elliot Mumm

Oceans, with choreography by Israeli-born Igal Perry, was recreated for UNC School of the Arts’ PLUCK Project college seniors. Original music by Amit Weiner created an ethereal entrancing soundtrack that matched the flowing movement of Perry’s choreography. Dense fog filled the breathtakingly lit stage with one male dancer, Zachary Snyder, slowly swimming into the light. Dancers slipped in and out of dark shadows and rays of light, appearing to be floating in and out of water. Dancers were split evenly in flowing diaphanous black and teal blue costumes, which added to the swirling and fluid movement quality. Weiner’s composition was hypnotic, with driving violin and piano soaring through the audience. Having performed Oceans in NYC prior to Spring Dance, senior dancers effortlessly executed the incredibly acrobatic, aerobic choreography. Walking patterns turned into full on running sprints while hunched over holding quadriceps. Oceans was visually and gorgeously crafted, delivering a vast expanse of movement. As these immensely talented seniors took their final bows on the Stevens Center stage, Oceans highlighted the power they have as contemporary athletic artists.

DANCERS: Macy Alday, Nyah Banks, Amaya Burnett, Giovanni Castellon, Aly Candland, Nikolas Darrough, Caroline Felkins, Maeve Friedman, Quetzali Hart, Skyler Herrick, Courtney Holbrooks, Ainsley McDonald, Madisyn Montgomery, Rachel Mooney, Kate Moorhouse, Sophia Pielet, Claire Schiffer, Hikaru Smith, Zachary Snyder, Adianna Valentine and Charlee George

A world premiere by former NYC Ballet soloist, Tom Gold, brought the NYC subway to life. “The Next Stop Is…,” performed by UNCSA ballet dancers, was whimsical and theatrical. Gold’s choreography depicted the fast-paced lifestyle that New Yorkers come to know. Gold, through spot-on vignettes, takes us on an exuberant ride depicting pedestrians rushing through the tunnels, platforms, and rotating turnstiles. Quirky and with a flair for humor, the dancers enacted drinking coffee, meeting old friends and playful stolen glances. Composer Ezio Bosso‘s Road Sign Variations perfectly matched the Balanchinesque choreography. Gentle guitar plucks for the swaying train sections and iconic announcements like “the next stop is” and “stay clear of the closing doors” created a playful soundtrack. Polished and pristine pointe work, lightning speed chaînés combinations and buoyant brisés were golden. Complex symmetrical patterns with mixed gendered partners showcased the dancers’ strength and their storytelling abilities. More Gold, please!

DANCERS: Reese Dailey, Avery Davis, Bailey Goss, Will Gyves, Sofia Johnson, Mya Kerestes, Anela Mosqueda, Makenzie Nathan, Katherine Pearsall-Finch, Evan Ray, Graham Wissinger, Antony Zambrano, Maya Beck, Noah Braun, Harry Cooper, Brynn Copeland, Avery Davis, Reagan Hammond, Emma Kate Monroe, Averi Nozzarella, Chloe Webster, Will Whitney, Ava Grace Williams and featured soloists, Will Gyves and Karl Pil

The much-anticipated Merce Cunningham’s Travelogue (1977) was reconstructed with the UNC School of the Arts students for the first time in 40 years. Cunningham stagers Marcie Munnerlyn and Andrea Weber mounted the work using archival videos and notes. Dancers learned the work in two weeks and then rehearsed with School of Dance Contemporary Dean Brenda Daniels and newly retired faculty member Trish Casey. The dancers’ command of Cunningham technique was outstanding. Five featured dancers, with three dancers serving as musicians in the orchestra pit, took the audience on a wild modern art ride. Complete with a large-scale bicycle train, flying sails, and elaborate thought-provoking wheel fan costumes, there was so much to unpack, making it challenging to focus on the movement. Luckily, the dancers commanded the stage with intention and an exuberance that brought this work to life. Coming in at 52 minutes, the dancers’ stamina in this marathon-length work was a feast for all the senses. In bright colored unitards, the dancers executed running patterns with signature Cunningham low tense port de bras, front attitude sautés and springing prances with a joyful appreciation for this historical work. Music by John Cage had the audience questioning everything they heard with the groundbreaking use of sound for music. Crumbling tin foil, taping pens, audible telephone calls, and recorded voice mails from Merce Cunningham Dance Company, ABT, and the well-known voice of Scott Spencer, UNCSA Stevens Center Box Office Manager, were incorporated into the score. Silence was the backdrop with musicians creating the sound choices. Only minimal upbeat musical snippets of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” broke the silence. Cutting-edge for its time, this historical masterpiece was entertaining and memorable. Audience members were heard debating, deconstructing and asking questions, as good art allows them to do.

DANCERS: Jack Cerminaro, Devon Drybread, Caleb Chesson, Hayden McCann, Jarrod Harrell, Mason Gaddis, Nick Buynitzky, Charlie McVickers, Caroline Bonnette, Julianna Pittman, Meileigh Larson, Naya Gonzalez, Sierra-Loren Chapman Raea Moorehead Addy Harris MUSICIANS: Veronica Comelek, Marius Diaz, Kayla Jackson, Santina Leone, Mack Longley, Jackson Menard

A new crop of choreographers is springing out of UNCSA, and Ashley Lindsey is in the top of the field. UNCSA alumni 2017 and former José Limón dancer, Lindsey* has choreographed four commissions during his tenure at UNCSA, giving him the canvases to create truly outstanding dance art.

Lindsey’s world premiere of Portal was a stark contrast from the preceding Cunningham modern piece. This work filled the stage with percussive energy. Light and music designs are integral to his work, and this Design & Production collaboration was otherworldly. Lighting design by Sage Green was dark, edgy, and executed blasts of light into the audience, breaking the fourth wall. With intensely dark shadows, Lindsey said he wanted to portray the grit and grime as well as the elegance and poise of NYC. Music by Travis Lake, LVDF, Mika Vainio, Ryoji Lkeda, and Alva Noto served as the starting point for Lindsey. The intensely lit fog-filled stage opened with a central clump of dancers supporting each other. Trust was a layer that built throughout the dance, with exhilarating and daring partnering lifts. The pulsating perpetual movement was choreographed chaos. In tune with the organic process of creativity, Lindsey incorporates movement phrases conceived by the dancers, giving the dancers a sense of ownership in the creative process. With the sheer physical intensity of Lindsey’s movement, dancers have to be in top athletic form. Chandler Davidson was electrifying. The final moment of the work, when the dancers have breathlessly collected back into the unified clump, featured Davidson slowly walking on his own through a doorway. This is reflective of the same journey Lindsey will be experiencing as he steps into a new chapter as a freelance choreographer. We can only hope that this choreographer will continue creating cutting-edge virtuosic movement on the world’s biggest stages.

DANCERS: Lily Chan, Karley Childress, Kyriaki Christoforou, Chandler Davidson, Vince Jackson, Meghan Lensmeyer, Will Meeks, Camille Pettiford, Elizabeth Russell, Mariella Saunders, Kenzie Sawyer, Tianyu Wang, Margaret Wilsch, Ashton Babb, Grace Bethune, Valadie Cammack, Nadia Chudzik, Anna Heinemann, Helena Hoermann, Jen Kim, Oliva Tarlton, Camryn Varney.

UNDERSTUDIES: Destiney Daniels, Reagan Gales, Sara Goldfarb, Terra Hernandez, Paris Newman, Candace Vann, Aniyah Wilkerson

Breaking ground in 1963-1965, UNC School of Dance has been cultivating and nurturing dancers for the nearly 60 years. Commissioning cutting-edge choreographic works is helping to breathe new life into the school. More audiences should have the opportunity to see these talented students. Perhaps touring to other major NC cities during the Stevens Center renovation period would be a great opportunity. I am excited to see the future growth and emergence of dance under the faculty and Dean Outlaw’s artistic acumen.

* Disclaimer: I have watched Ashley dance since his Martin Middle School Dance Ensemble years!