The Will and Memory: A Dance

Creative thinking and collaboration were the answers to an unfortunate overlap in scheduling between this year’s Dance 44 concert and the American College Dance Association’s (ACDA) East-Central regional conference. The conflicting circumstance caused senior dancers Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow to combine their previously-performed and stunning solo works, “Memory” by Mejicano-Gormley and “The Will” by Stringfellow, into a duet. The result is breathtaking and award-winning.

“The Will/Memory” by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow (photo by Erik Alberg)

Relying on their imagination to meld individual pieces that deal with similar themes of pain and resolve, Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow put their works together and aptly named it, “The Will/Memory.” With some coaching and choreography help from Professors Matt Farmer and Linda Graham, the two practiced the new original for three months this spring. They debuted it at a place and time both were available to perform together — at the University of Illinois for the ACDA Central regional conference in mid-March, after Dance 44 was complete.

“Since Dance 44 was at the same time as our regional ACDA conference (Hope is a member of the East-Central region), we had to go outside of our region to enter works for adjudication by the ACDA,” explains Graham, the Dorothy Wiley DeLong Professor of Dance. “We had hoped to get both solos in the Central conference but when schools go outside their region, they have to see what is left over after in-region schools take their slots. Consequently, by the time registration opened for the Central region, all but one adjudication slot had been taken by in-region schools. So I literally filled out the form and sat there, at my computer, watching the clock, and the moment the outside registration opened, I hit ‘enter.’ I had to snag it fast.”

“Personally, I thought the solos would work incredibly well juxtaposed with some crafty fusion.”

With only one slot available and two worthy solos to offer, a decision had to be made. Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow were asked to work together. “Personally, I thought the solos would work incredibly well juxtaposed with some crafty fusion,” said Graham.

“The Will/Memory” by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow (photo by Erik Alberg)

While “The Will/Memory” was created out of a scheduling necessity, Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow are the reasons the original work received prestigious accolades. “The Will/Memory” was chosen as one of 11 pieces (out of 44) to be performed during the ACDA Central region’s Gala Concert. Additionally, the piece received one more unexpected recognition when it was named an alternate for the national ACDA National College Dance Festival this June at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Each region selects two finalists and two alternates for the national festival.

What makes each unconventional step toward getting this deeply-moving dance to the regional, and maybe national, stage even more impressive is that Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow represented one of only two private liberal arts colleges at the conference. The other 25 schools present are all universities with professional choreographers.

“To have a dance piece created by two students placed on the same level as works of professional choreographers is both outstanding and an honor.”

“To have these students’ works accepted to both the Gala concert and as an alternate to the national performance at the Kennedy Center is a true testament to both the training in the dance department and the students’ artistic talent and hard work,” said Farmer, associate professor of dance and chair of the department. “To have a dance piece created by two students placed on the same level as works of professional choreographers is both outstanding and an honor.”

“The Will/Memory” by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow (photo by Erik Alberg)

Farmer started working with the two stellar dancers last December to help develop smooth transitions from one solo to the other inside the duet. “I would make a suggestion and talk about my reasons why I suggested this entry point or that transition, but I’d always ask, ‘Are you okay with that?’ The work was their inspiration so it was important I ask. But Nia and MG were always up for everything.”

Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow each created their solos for last year’s student-choreographed dance concert. Their inspiration for each piece emanated from the experience of wrestling with personal hardships. Stringfellow’s “The Will” expresses tenacity in the face of oppression, while Mejicano-Gormely’s “Memory” unpacks the difficulties in both leaving and moving forward. Their ability to combine and express deeply sensitive themes for hundreds of people demonstrates dedication to their art.

“Each step of creating this work has been a graceful surprise.”

“I think we were ready to explore our own solo works within this piece more because we had each other,” explains Mejicano-Gormley, a biology major and dance minor. “Each step of creating this work has been a graceful surprise,” acknowledged Stringfellow, an exercise science major and dance minor.

Graham calls “The Will/Memory” “an artistic gestalt — a duet that conveyed a universal truth deeply and rightly through the unique and ordinary.” Three adjudicators said the dance “represents a negotiation, standing emblematic to their truths,” that it “worked at multiple layers, slicing and etching with heart-wrenching pain,” and “it makes space with dignity and empathy for the tensions of race.”

As they dance with and near each other for more than nine minutes, Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow never truly make full eye contact. The two dancers almost see each other, but a new twist or turn keeps each from discovering the other. At the conclusion, the dancers eyes meet and the moving emotion of “The Will/Memory” makes way for hope. This is part of Mejicano-Gormley and Stringfellow’s brilliance. In the end, the dancers and the dance reveal that the look of hope is a powerful thing.

Costume design by Emily Mejicano-Gormley and Nia Stringfellow. Music by Clyde Otis and Sara Bareillis. Lighting design by Erik Alberg.

One Artist, One Faculty, One Question

Numerous professional visiting artists come to campus each academic year to both display their creative talents and impart their expressive wisdom to the Hope community. They show and tell us, by virtue of their displayed talents and spoken wisdom, that the arts are important to our collective communities because they require response and engagement, making us more mindful and inspired; making us more human.

Four of those visiting artists sat down separately with a Hope faculty member over the past year to answer how the arts contribute to the public good. It is a question whose answer is necessary toward a better understanding of what makes the arts important in our lives and world.

In this first installment of One Question, Matt Farmer, assistant professor of dance and chairperson of the department, sits down with Julia Rhoads, the founder and artistic director of Lucky Plush Productions (LPP), a dance company based in Chicago, Illinois. LPP appeared at Hope through the college’s Artist-in-Residence program.  The company previously performed at Hope in the fall of 2014 through the Great Performance Series.



Hip Hop a Hit in Japan

This past September, Professor Crystal Frazier walked into a Tokyo dance studio to teach a distinctly American art form and immediately encountered a vibe that was uniquely Japanese. A class of 40 college students stood eagerly at the ready – respectful, disciplined, hospitable. The music began to play, and an interpreter, earnest to translate, barely needed to speak. For the next three hours, hip hop would be the vehicle to move bodies and relationships across cultural lines; dance would be their universal language.

Crystal Frazier, assistant professor of dance at Hope College

Frazier, an assistant professor of dance who specializes in tap and Afro-fusion dance as well as hip hop, was present in that studio due to her selection by the Dance International Workshop Program to teach in Japan. Her four-week teaching and dancing tour of colleges in Nagoya, Osaka, Fukuoka, and of course, Tokyo, imparted not only the movement of hip hop but its history and social significance, too. To her delight and surprise, her Japanese understudies fully embraced the American art form and their American guest professor too.

Hip hop would be the vehicle to move bodies and relationships across cultural lines; dance would be their universal language.

Professor Crystal Frazier, far right, instructs students in the moves of hip hop in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Frazier)

“It was incredible,” gushes Frazier who has taught at Hope since 2011. “I was struck by the discipline of the students alone. They focused intensely and were very respectful. There was no fiddling around. They were always ready to go and then for an entire class, they listened and engaged. And when class was done, they cleaned up the room for the next class. I was blown away.

“I was also really amazed at how gifted and talented they were,” she continues. “They have taken it (hip hop) and owned. They were all in. Except for the history part. That aspect they needed to know more about.”

Frazier taught them then—this time relying more on her interpreter—that hip hop started as an art form in the U.S. in the late 1970s. Purely defined, hip hop is an umbrella culture consisting of five elements (MC-ing, DJ-ing, breaking, graffiti, and knowledge). It broke on the scene in the south Bronx of New York City, and since then it has expanded to nearly every American region as well as internationally. Though it has several sub-styles such as lyrical, soul, and femme, hip hop is hip hop to Frazier—a singularly named dance style demonstrative of high energy and emotion. That was her main lesson to impart while in Japan.

Fortunately, hip hop has been deeply appreciated by the Japanese for some time, Frazier found. “Sometimes I think they love it more than people in the States, only because we can take American things for granted,” says the effervescent Frazier who dances professionally still for Rennie Harris Puremovement, an American dance company of hip hop artists.

Though she feels that Japanese teens and young adults gravitate to hip hop, she also felt, and experienced, a lack of social dancing in Japan. This difference in culturally and publicly accepted dancing struck Frazier as profoundly as the respect and discipline her students displayed in class. It is a concept foreign to her, this idea of reserving dance mostly for the studio and stage.

Dancing in the Street: Crystal Frazier, center, bought her dancing energy to the famous Tokyo-Shibuya crossing. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Frazier)

“When we have a party (in the U.S.), people dance,” observes Frazier. “The Electric Slide comes on and everyone gets up and dances. Not so in Japan. Parties were about conversations. People were talking but not dancing. It seemed dancing, newer dancing, is not a socially engaged activity in Japan. I can’t imagine listening to music and not dancing.”

Move and groove. This is a hip hop dancer’s mantra. And it is one Frazier aspired to leave behind in Japan.

Hope Shares Talent at ArtPrize

Four Hope College faculty and staff members — two musicians, a dancer, and a Lego artist — plus numerous Hope student viewers, some of whom attend as part of their social work course, will be among the many participating in ArtPrize, the “radically open, independently organized, international art competition” held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, annually.

Dr. Charles Cusack’s entry: Latin Squared Square. Photo credit: Steve Nelson, Hope College Art and Art History Department

ArtPrize opened its 2015 collection of more than 1,500 works yesterday. Now in its seventh year, the competition offers its artists and viewers an unconventional and intriguing way to discuss what art is and why it matters. The highly communal artworks, which are voted on by judges and the public alike, will remain on display throughout the downtown Grand Rapids area until Sunday, Oct. 11.

Dr. Charles Cusack, associate professor of computer science, has been a Lego enthusiast since he was a young boy. Now he’s putting that enthusiasm on display with Latin Squared Square, a 38” x 38” piece of two different types of combinatorial objects constructed with Legos. Located in the B.O.B, Cusack’s work is a simple, perfect square that has been squared. A Latin square is a grid in which every cell is a certain color (or shape or number) and every row and every column contains each color exactly once (like Sudoku). Cusack says the work took him over a year-and-a-half to conceive and create as he wrote computer algorithms to achieve his desired Latin square effect and spent much time shopping online to track down the Lego pieces he needed. “It’s harder to find pieces of specific Lego than you would think,” says Cusack, who admits he never thought of himself as an artist but has toyed with the idea of an ArtPrize submission for years. “Lego has to be one of the most expensive mediums, too,” he says, especially when those pieces are carefully and colorfully selected and arranged in a specialized, mathematical way.

Professor Angie Yetzke, assistant professor of dance, and Bruce Benedict, chaplain of worship music in Campus Ministries, along with Pj Maske of Urban Garden Performing Arts, are uniting their talents to present a collaborative production entitled “The Blind Ambition of Miss Columbia.” The piece is a hybrid work of movement-based theatre and live music. “The Blind Ambition of Miss Columbia” is a critique of the historical American notion of Manifest Destiny, which asks “questions about collective cultural identity and memory,” explains Maske. “When popular art and culture blindly romanticize the past, how do we own the truth of a (troubling) history?” It will be performed at the Amway Grand Plaza‘s outdoor patio on the northwest corner, on Saturday, Sept 26 and Saturday, Oct. 3 at 1:30, 2:00, 3:00 and 3:30 pm.

Stephen Talaga, adjunct assistant professor of music, has entered “New Hope” in 2015 ArtPrize. Photo credit: Juan Daniel Castro

Professor Stephen Talaga, adjunct assistant professor of music, has entered an electronic keyboard improvisation piece in ArtPrize. “New Hope” was first commissioned by Julia Randel of the Hope College Music Department for the opening of the new Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts on campus this fall. Talaga says he created the celebratory work “on my home computer by layering successive tracks until I ended up with a result I liked.” Randel likes it too. “What I especially enjoy about the piece is that it evokes so many different sounds and styles, so it suggests the broad range of what we do in the music department,” she explains. “Being an electronic piece, it has ‘newness,’ but it also connects with multiple traditions coming together in our building.” The eight-minute piece is accessible to listen to through the ArtPrize website and via listening stations at St. Cecilia Music Center.

Students in Dr. Deb Sturtevant’s Social Interventions III class attend ArtPrize as a vital component of their coursework. In the gallery that is three-square miles of downtown Grand Rapids, senior-level social work students witness how art can revitalize organizations and communities, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. Sturtevant, professor of social work, has used ArtPrize since its inception as a vehicle to convey that the macro-practices of social work are “not just about soup kitchens.” Her students attend ArtPrize each year to see how art, especially in the Heartside Ministries and Avenue of the Arts neighborhoods of Grand Rapids, is created and viewed by those who might be homeless, for instance. “Some of my students go back to ArtPrize repeatedly,” she says. “Many are especially drawn to art with a strong social message.” Her students must talk with the artists and viewers as well as simply observe. And while paper-writing and vote-casting are required, Sturtevant’s students come away from ArtPrize with an even greater realization that art provides value to communities beyond its beauty on a wall or in a park. They find art and ArtPrize informs and transforms artists and observers, neighborhoods and friends.

“Some of my students go back to ArtPrize repeatedly. Many are especially drawn to art with a strong social message.” — Dr. Deb Sturtevant

If you’re heading to ArtPrize over the next few weeks, be sure to check out the entries created by members of the Hope community!

A Lifetime of Dancing

DeBruynMaxineMention the Hope College Dance Department to a dancer, dance educator or dance enthusiast, and it’s not long before the conversation turns to Maxine DeBruyn. The two, it seems, are synonymous.

After all, Ms. DeBruyn — “Maxine” to the Hope community, and “Max” to those who know her well — has spent a 50-year career at Hope College, where she grew the dance program from a single course to an academic department to an academic major. Today, the program — accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance for three decades — is one of only 250 arts programs of all types nationwide highlighted in the book “Creative Colleges: A Guide for Student Actors, Artists, Dancers, Musicians and Writers.”

Here at Hope, we know what a tremendous difference Maxine has made to generations of dancers. So, you can imagine how excited we were to learn that the National Dance Education Organization will be presenting Maxine with its most prestigious honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, for her contributions to dance education locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

As a professor, Maxine served the campus community as department chair, teacher, choreographer, cheerleading coach and student group adviser. She retired in 2006, but slowing down wasn’t her style. Even in retirement, she has continued to inspire us by teaching dance classes at Hope.

Maxine DeBruyn in 1968, early in a career dedicated to preparing generations of dancers
Maxine DeBruyn in 1968, early in her decades-long tenure at Hope College, where she has educated generations of dancers

You can learn more about Maxine’s career and her Lifetime Achievement Award by reading the recent news release from Hope College.

Congratulations on this honor, Maxine! It makes us want to — what else? — dance with joy.

Maxine DeBruyn is the Dorothy Wiley DeLong Professor Emerita of Dance in the Dance Department at Hope College.