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Ballet and modern dance have a long and respected history at the University of Utah, reaching back more than a half-century. But until last fall, the departments that existed under the same roof were otherwise completely separate. The department of ballet and the department of modern dance had separate students, directors, teachers, curriculum and even schedules ballet designated by studio number and modern by day of the week.
Last month, after one semester as the unified School of Dance, a student likened it to "tearing down a wall."
To celebrate what so far appears to be a happy union, ballet and modern-dance students will share the stage in an inaugural Gala Concert, beginning Thursday. The culminating dinner and performance on April 1 is in honor of Sharee Lane's retirement after 28 years of teaching at the University of Utah.
The four works on the gala program represent the full range of the dance disciplines with Act III of "Swan Lake," two original faculty works and an excerpt from "MiddleSexGorge" by Stephen Petronio, whose movement vocabulary has influenced modern choreographers over the past 25 years. The faculty works include a premiere by modern-dance program coordinator Stephen Koester and an octet taken from new department director Luc Vanier's 2008 "Triptych."
As the founding director for the School of Dance, Vanier brings to the job the right combination of performance experience, a clear philosophy on dance training in universities, and administrative skills. He was a principal dancer and choreographer with Ohio Ballet for 10 years, holds an MFA from the University of Illinois and has published and presented his research internationally on combining dance technique and developmental movement in dance curriculum. Before coming to Utah, he was the associate director and head of dance at the School of Theatre and Dance at Texas Tech University.
Vanier is a family guy whose wife, Elizabeth Johnson, teaches dance at the University of Florida, and their three college-age kids seem to have instilled in him a sense of flexibility and optimism. He's big on second chances, as evidenced by his return to Utah after being hired by the university five years ago before the ballet department went into receivership and had a hiring freeze. Yet his academic philosophy was only strengthened by the experience.
"I knew at the time that ballet had gone through hard times and I viewed it as an opportunity," Vanier said. "You'll find that people like me who are committed to dance, and committed to dance in universities, are committed to supporting research in the field. A lot of professionals are busy doing the art, so they need a choreographic center where people can research and write papers and books about dance and somatics, study gender issues, look at how choreography and pedagogy are impacted by new ideas in psychology and biomechanics, for example."
Vanier said that although he is not interested in training people for the sole purpose of getting into companies, he easily lists graduates teaching and performing in professional positions around the country. He counters the commonly held argument that ballet dancers in particular waste valuable years in college.
"Professional companies nowadays are looking for thinkers, people that are capable of adapting not just rigorous ballet training, but dancers that also understand somatic work so they can be healthy, and have experience in the processes of composition so they understand how 21st-century choreographers work."
Due to normal attrition and retirement, Vanier has the opportunity to fill several faculty spots with people who share his vision. One person the department will find hard to replace is beloved Utah ballet icon Sharee Lane, retiring as the longest-serving faculty member in the ballet and modern programs.
In 1989 when the Marriott Center for Dance opened on the U. of U. campus, Lane worked as assistant director of the Ballet West conservatory (a collaboration between the U.'s continuing education and Ballet West) under BW's third and fourth artistic directors, John Hart and Jonas Kåge. She left the position in 1999 and went full time in the U.'s department of ballet and is the only person to then transfer departments to join the modern-dance faulty. She worked her way up from an associate instructor and is retiring as tenured associate professor.
"Seven years with modern and 22 years in ballet have made me a better facilitator for educating students, communicating with faculty and teaching master classes across the nation," Lane said. "In our world today, dancers need to develop expression and find their voice. I learned there is not a right way of doing things, but there is a better way of doing things."
Lane said she is "thrilled to see the two programs finally come together, and I believe Luc is the right man to do the job."
She will continue guest teaching with an already-full schedule that includes Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Northwest Dance Project in Portland, and Ballet West summer program. Most of all, she is looking forward to spending time with her husband, Drew Papadakis.
Tear down this wall
The University of Utah School of Dance presents an inaugural gala concert.
When • Thursdays, 5:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m., through April 1.
Where • Marriott Center for Dance, 330 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $12; tickets.utah.edu