Studious Feet 

James Madison University’s Virginia Repertory Dance Company tackles new work by Richmond choreographers.

click to enlarge JMU’s Virginia Repertory Dance company celebrates its 30th anniversary with nationally recognized guest artists including Jess Burgess and Tara Z. Mullins. Burgess is the co-artistic director and founder of RVA Dance Collective.

©2013 Richard Finkelstein

JMU’s Virginia Repertory Dance company celebrates its 30th anniversary with nationally recognized guest artists including Jess Burgess and Tara Z. Mullins. Burgess is the co-artistic director and founder of RVA Dance Collective.

Dance, as an art form, takes time. Time to make, learn, teach and watch. That's one reason dancers are drawn to college programs, because they give them four years of intensive study and practice in their chosen form.

At James Madison University, the Virginia Repertory Dance Company maximizes the time dancers get to spend learning, rehearsing and performing.

The company consists of junior and senior dance majors. Under the guidance of artistic director and faculty member Shane O'Hara, it commissions new work from regional and national choreographers, including alumni, for a performance at JMU and a regional tour — hence its stop this weekend at Dogtown Dance Theatre.

This spring's 30th anniversary program includes work by Richmond-based choreographer Jess Burgess, of RVA Dance Collective fame, and Tara Mullins of Z Mullins Dance Company — both former students. Also included will be work by VCU faculty member Scott Putman, Florida-based Tzveta Kassabova, Washington artist Roxann Morgan Rowley, former New York-based Doug Varone and Dancers member Ryan Corriston, as well as O'Hara.

"It's interesting how we bring choreography together and you get themes that appear out of nowhere," O'Hara says. "This year, I think there's a real sense of personal journey in the pieces." So to lighten up the program, he says, laughing, "of course I had to make the comic piece" — a trio titled "Comrades Chillin.'"

O'Hara builds the program on a shoestring budget, with an eye toward a range of choreographic approaches and opportunities for his dancers.

The dancers devote about 10 hours of rehearsal per week to the company. "They're rehearsing two and a half hours, four days a week, and coming in on weekends," O'Hara says. "They make a commitment to it that really brings them together as a group." Not only that, he adds, but "the dancers develop a deep understanding of what it means to perform a work."

In learning work by several different choreographers, the dancers must investigate the differences in performance styles, O'Hara says. The process gives them time to do that because they begin working on new pieces each spring for the following academic year. O'Hara says a great example is Putman's piece "Weaving Words to Whisper in the World."

"It's a beautiful movement piece, but there's so much underneath it," O'Hara says. Even though they've been dancing it since last February, "they're still finding new parts in it. And that's what so cool to me. They're still saying, 'Oh yeah, now I get this!' and it's been a year. I love working with pieces like that." S

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Virginia Repertory Dance Company performs Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. at the Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th St. Tickets will be sold only at the door, and prices are $25 for adults and $15 for students, seniors and youths. For information call 540-421-4697 or email oharast@jmu.edu.

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