Dance Zero to 'Lights!' in three weeks

Contemporary dance pioneer Amy O'Neil takes Northwest Vista's students through her paces

Dancer and choreographer Amy O'Neil works with students during a workshop at Northwest Vista College. The San Antonio native is here for a month-long residency in the college's Kinesiology and Dance Department. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

By most accounts, dance, and especially modern dance, is low on the list of an already marginal roster of arts priorities in San Antonio. Except for mainstays such as the Incarnate Word Joffrey Ballet Workshop and periodic guest artists at the Carver or local studios, there aren't many options for master classes or participatory dance festivals in San Antonio. Northwest Vista College, the maverick ACCD campus with an emphasis on integrative and interdisciplinary programs, hopes to create a little of that atmosphere with a three-week residency by nationally recognized dancer and choreographer Amy O'Neil, a San Antonio native. Through May 27, O'Neil will collaborate with Northwest Vista students and faculty to create a new work that will premiere in a public performance on May 26.

It's a happy coincidence that May is Dance Month in San Antonio, coinciding nicely with Northwest Vista's "Maymester," a three-week, intensive mini-semester that falls between the standard spring and summer schedule. Students enrolled in Modern Dance I and II will work with O'Neil three hours a day, five days a week, honing their skills, building stamina, and - the most important aspect to Northwest Vista Dance Instructor Jayne King - experiencing first-hand the focus and intensity of working in a professional, festival-like atmosphere.

The idea of taking a performance piece from conception to production in three weeks might sound daunting but, according to King, this is one of the things O'Neil does best. Most of King's students are young and have no dance experience. Some of them have had some studio experience with ballet, tap, or jazz, but almost all are new to modern dance. King finds the entire prospect exciting. "Amy has a real gift for quickly assessing who she has to work with and making it work beautifully. This is exactly the kind of momentum we want to cultivate" says King, who joined the college's faculty only a year ago.

O'Neil, with composer Zeke Keeble, is co-director of Seattle-based dance, music, and video performance company Locust. Described as the "avant-garde garage band of the Seattle dance scene," Locust has created more than a dozen commissions, improvisational performances, and site-specific and self-produced works (both short and evening length) since its inception five years ago. Most recently, Locust received funding from the prestigious National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts to tour their latest work, convenience. The piece will be performed in six cities across the U.S., including at the opening of the American College Dance Festival and the Northwest Film Forum's New Dance Cinema.

Contemporary Dance Premiere

Amy O'Neil
Northwest Vista College dance students

7:30pm, May 26
Palo Alto College
Performing Arts Center
1400 W. Villaret
Information: 348-2225
O'Neil is an ideal guest artist for Northwest Vista as much for her expertise as a dancer and choreographer as for her experience with community dance projects. The College doesn't have a performance space, so the new work will premiere at the Performing Arts Center at ACCD sister-campus Palo Alto College. In keeping with Northwest Vista's interest in interdisciplinary programs, Locust has been recognized for its distinct use of video by the Northwest Film Forum, Seattle Art Museum, and Western Bridge. "I don't know that she'll necessarily incorporate it, but one of the reasons we chose Palo Alto, aside from the beautiful facility, is that they're equipped for whatever multimedia elements might get worked into the piece," says King.

King is the first full-time dance instructor at Northwest Vista, hired as the department of kinesiology made a very purposeful name change to include dance. Department Chair Travis Prok says, "We wanted to build a kinesiology department that would encompass the whole tradition of movement sciences, to promote health and fitness with a holistic base. It just seemed logical to embrace modern dance." That's curiously enlightened logic coming from a personal trainer with degrees in sports medicine and exercise science, who came to Texas from his native Calgary on the college rodeo circuit. All stereotypes aside (except for the cowboy boots and rodeo belt buckle), Prok has been working for five years to include dance in the kinesiology curriculum. Starting with a few classes and adjunct faculty, Prok was able to garner enough interest and establish a viable health and fitness angle to justify a full-time faculty position. Apparently, the department's holistic mix was compelling enough to lure King from her native California.

At the end of her first year in San Antonio, King is optimistic. "Energy for dance seems to be building," she says, not only at Northwest Vista but throughout the city. Perhaps she's right. With nationally recognized dance companies coming to SA courtesy of organizations such as the Carver and Arts San Antonio, a revitalized San Antonio Dance Umbrella, and a growing number of local dance collaboratives, companies, and studios, including ballet, modern, and a full range of ethnic traditions, perhaps there's dance in San Antonio's future yet.

There is one nagging question, though. Is putting dance under the kinesiology curriculum yet another instance of subverting the arts for more "practical" concerns? As long as Northwest Vista continues to bring in professional-level residencies such as Amy O'Neil,

I think we're in the clear.

By Diana Lyn Roberts


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