UVU Students to Make History Performing Rare Solo and Choreography Alongside Professional Dancers

UVU students will take the stage with professional dancers from the Repertory Dance Theatre and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in their upcoming performance, “A Celebration of Contemporary Dance," on Nov. 5-6.


The dance studio is hushed. There’s an almost palpable feeling of reverence and concentration as Virginie Mécène, former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and director of pre-professional dance company Graham 2, leads a group of 12 Utah Valley University (UVU) students through a series of warm-ups before the rehearsal. The students perform extensions and contractions in unison, moving and stretching seamlessly alongside several professional dancers from the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT).

This moment is just a glimpse into the dancers’ rigorous rehearsal routine for the past three weeks. Since mid-October, the UVU Contemporary Dance Ensemble has worked with Mécène and professional dancers from RDT, a nationally recognized contemporary dance company based in Salt Lake City, for six days each week to master choreography created by influential American modern dancer Martha Graham.  

The intensive process will culminate in students taking the stage with professional dancers from RDT and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in their upcoming performance, “A Celebration of Contemporary Dance.” The show will run November 5 and 6, 2021, at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre at The Noorda Center for the Performing Arts.

“Dancing the work of Martha Graham is so special,” said Rachel Miller, a senior and modern dance and ballet major. “There is so much history to it, there is so much meaning to it, there is so much emotion and humanity in it.”

Miller is one of eight people in the world who have been selected to perform “Ekstasis,” a 1933 solo created by Graham. The solo disappeared from the modern-dance repertory for decades related to limited documentation, but Mécène found a film reel of Graham describing the solo and reimagined the choreography based on photographs of the piece.

Mécène’s reimagining of “Ekstasis,” which explores the path of movement from the hip to the shoulder, was first performed in 2017 by PeiJu Chien-Pott, a principal dancer of the Martha Graham Dance Company. It has also been performed by two soloists from the Martha Graham Company; Sara Mearns, a principal dancer from the New York City Ballet; and Aurélie Dupont, a danseuse étoile from the Paris Opera Ballet.

In addition to Miller, UVU modern dance major Jadyn Nelms and UVU Professor of Dance Angela Banchero-Kelleher will join the ranks of dancers that have performed “Ekstasis.”

“This is the first time, in fact, that students are going to perform this solo,” Mécène said. “The dance is not something that can be re-created exactly the same. It’s a journey that each dancer is going through.”

Banchero-Kelleher became aware of the solo while taking an intensive Graham workshop with Mécène several years ago. When RDT Director Linda C. Smith reached out to her last year about including UVU students in a performance of Graham’s “Steps in the Street” from Chronicle, Banchero-Kelleher knew these two opportunities to stage Graham’s choreography would create the perfect engaged-learning project for students.

“For me personally, to get to do this work is the culmination of a professional career,” she said. “It’s really seen as a foundational solo, and it was reimagined by deep research by Virginie, so, in addition to the opportunity to perform the piece, it’s a terrific opportunity for our students to see how research in dance works.”

Along with learning Graham’s choreography, the students have enjoyed the chance to work closely with professionals — a foundational element of programs in the UVU Department of Dance. Dancers from RDT recently taught over 40 classes in the department as part of a weeklong residency, and later this year, UVU faculty will select 20 students to perform with RDT in January at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

“This is my third or fourth time being able to work collaboratively through UVU with a professional company, and I learn so much every time,” Miller said. “It allows me to network and build connections with professional dancers and the professional dance world as a whole.”

Nelms has also appreciated the chance to connect with performers as she prepares for her next steps (pun intended) after graduation. “I’m a senior, so I’m at the point in my life where I have to start thinking about my career. Being in the face [of] and working with actual performing professionals is super special and gives me a little step ahead to my career.” 

Ursula Perry, a dance artist with RDT, cherishes the chance to work with students and feels that this kind of engaged-learning experience as a student would have been invaluable to her own career path.

“You’re learning nuances of the technique, and you’re learning the history of the technique, so you’re able to apply that immediately on a professional level rather than learning steps and counts. If I had that a little bit more [in my pre-professional training], it wouldn’t have taken so long in my professional career to get that kind of nuance.”

According to Monica Campbell, chair of the UVU Department of Dance, this performance will highlight the sense of fearlessness, confidence, and trust that the students have cultivated through working with the RDT dancers and Mécène. “It’s been an experience that has really required our students to dig deep and see what they’re made of, and we are just thrilled to see how this is going to culminate in the upcoming performances.”

To purchase tickets to “A Celebration of Contemporary Dance,” please visit the event page.