In a studio on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, a group of dance students is perfecting a moment in “Love Re-Defined: King Kong,” a 1996 work by choreographer Bill T. Jones. Over and over again, in unison, they spill out onto the floor, fall down, and recover — not to music, but to the sound of a voice saying, “They shot him down.”
Janet Wong, the associate artistic director of the Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company, tells one of the dancers to scream if he wants to. He declines, a bit shyly. But he and his fellow dancers, all members of the student company known as University DanceWorks, start to lose their inhibitions as the rehearsal progresses.
Nobody is screaming, but everyone is focused. These juniors and seniors know they are in the presence of greatness, or, at least, among disciples of greatness. They are learning a work by master choreographer Jones, from Wong and another onetime member of Jones’ company, Rosalynde Le Blanc.
“Love Re-Defined” is the centerpiece of an upcoming program featuring Mason Gross dance students, Friday through Sunday, December 1 through 3, at the New Theater. The DancePlus concert, a semi-annual event, also includes works choreographed by Mason Gross faculty members Randy James, Julia Ritter, Christian von Howard, and John Evans.
Bill T. Jones, who met with the students when he brought his company to the campus earlier this fall, is one of several high-profile contemporary choreographers who have been brought in to work with Mason Gross dancers over the past five years. David Parsons, Trisha Brown, Doug Varone, and Susan Marshall — all big names in modern dance — have brought their companies to perform at the school and then set one of their works, or an excerpt, on the students.
This unique residency program, known officially as Mason Gross Presents, was initiated so students in all of the performing arts would get a chance to work with masters in their field. Funding for the program came from Summerfest, an arts series that was held on the campus during summer months during the 1990s. While the festival had offered quality performances to the surrounding community, it didn’t really serve the students. “The dean’s idea was to take that money from Summerfest and do residencies instead, throughout the year,” says Randy James, a Mason Gross dance faculty member and the artistic director of the dance department’s University DanceWorks company. (James is also the artistic director of his own professional company, Randy James Dance Works.)
“It makes a huge impact in so many different ways,” James says. “The students get to perform works of these acknowledged masters, and to interact with all of them, too. So they get to see a world-class company right here in our own theater, get taught by company members, and perform their works. It’s just an incredible experience for our students, and it has really helped us with recruitment at Rutgers. We have a world-class faculty, but the students want to dance for guest artists also.”
Among the seniors performing this weekend is Dana Prieto, who joined University DanceWorks last year. Before becoming a member of the student company, Prieto soaked up knowledge by watching guest choreographers at work. “It’s nice, because when we get guest artists we get a little taste of what they’re about,” Prieto says. “I love Doug Varone. He was here in my sophomore year. Susan Marshall has been here too, and she has amazing creativity I’d love to explore. They are all different. Trisha’s gestures are very technical but also loose and droppy and weighted. Bill T. Jones is very sharp and strong.”
Growing up in Bergen County, Prieto studied ballet, jazz, tap and modern dance classes at a private studio from the time she was five years old. In her highly competitive high school, the emphasis was on academics. But she began to realize, while thinking about colleges, just how important dance was in her life. “I noticed myself that I couldn’t go on with life without dance,” she says. “It made me passionate about what I do. I decided to pursue it. I auditioned for Mason Gross and also tried SUNY Purchase, NYU, Montclair State College, and Fordham, all of which have good dance departments.”
James takes the most promising students into University DanceWorks, auditioning junior and senior bachelor of fine arts candidates. Prieto is one of 17 in the company this year. In addition to the concert in December, the dancers perform around New Jersey at vocational/ technical schools, senior citizen centers, and for young children. Every performance is followed by a group discussion, where the dancers talk about their backgrounds and why they love to dance.
“We’re not really professionals yet, but Randy treats us as if we were professionals,” Prieto says. “He’s strict with us, but he’s lovable. He’s there to support us and lead us to how things are supposed to be.”
Each residency program begins with master classes and lecture demonstrations by the visiting choreographer, followed by a public performance by his or her company. It is after that when the real work begins: A member of the visiting company sets a work by the master choreographer of the student troupe.
Last year, Vicky Shick, a former member of the Trisha Brown company, set an excerpt from Brown’s “Solo Olos” on the Mason Gross students. For Prieto it was a revelation. “It was a very interesting process because we had to retrograde the movement,” she says. “The piece was about you doing the piece, and someone over a speaker would say, ‘Do it in reverse.’ You had to be ready. There were five of us, and we had to be in unison until we were commanded to reverse it. So we had to learn it backwards. It was hard at first, not only physically but mentally challenging too.”
These close collaborations with top choreographers and their disciples give Mason Gross students an advantage when they leave school and pursue professional performing careers. Each of the choreographers who visit the university has distinctly different styles and repertories. “As a dancer, you want to appreciate all of these forms,” says Prieto. “There are so many talents and creativities out there that you can learn from. I go to see other shows to inspire me as well.”
Some of the choreographers participating in the residency programs at Mason Gross are regularly on the scene to work with the dancers; others rely on assistants. But all appear to meet the students at some point. “Each one of them except Trisha and Bill has come to ‘clean up’ the work at the end of the residency,” says James. “But they all got to deal with Trisha and Bill when their companies were here. They all got to meet that person.”
James says Jones is interested in having one of the Mason Gross dancers come and take class with his company. Five years ago, David Parsons auditioned a student he had encountered in the program. While she didn’t join the Parsons company, she did go on to other professional work.
“These are things these students would have never had if they didn’t have this support from the dean’s office for this program,” says James. “The dance department itself would never have been able to afford this kind of thing. It’s kind of a whole package — a performance for the public, master classes for the students, and then studying the work. I think it makes us unique among universities.”
Dance Plus Fall, Friday through Sunday, December 1 to 3, 8 p.m., Mason Gross School of the Arts, New Theater, New Brunswick, “Love Re-Defined: King Kong,” “Soul Serenade,” “Blue Honey Sky, Last Spring,” “Far as the Eye Can See,” and “Unknown Horizon.” $25. 732-932-7511.