When dance and environmental studies professor Andrea Olsen first came to Middlebury College in 1982, the dance program was in its infancy. Students could participate in the recently formed Dance Company of Middlebury, but they couldn’t get credit for it or major in dance.
The department has come a long way since then. To mark its 30th anniversary, DCM will premiere its newest work, Simply Light, with Middlebury dancers of all eras this Friday and Saturday at the college, before taking the work on a weeklong tour to Smith College in Northampton, Mass.; and the Monterey Institute for International Studies in California and other arts venues. The Saturday performance includes a preshow discussion about DCM’s history — led by college historian Andrew Wentink and Olsen, artistic director of the company — and a postshow reception and dance party.
Alum Paul Matteson, a Bessie Award-winning dancer and former principal member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, joins six current DCM members to present an evening of diverse works. They range from a student-choreographed hip-hop piece performed before a screen flashing pleading texts (“Touch me. Feel me. Hear me. Keep me.”); to a playful trio flirtatiously dancing to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs choreographed by Peter Schmitz, who worked on DCM’s very first season; to an evocative piece that intersperses Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon” with sound footage from the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing.
Olsen says the title, Simply Light, refers to both the effect of theater lighting on performance and the energy that moves through our bodies. “We’re trying to enhance awareness of the body,” says Olsen.
Back in 1982, Middlebury was one of few
liberal arts colleges with its own dance company, thanks to Dana Holby, who now teaches at Marlboro College. Olsen arrived after teaching dance at Mount Holyoke College and several years of performing and touring with her company, Dance Gallery. She had immersed herself in the authentic-movement and contact-improv communities there. “There was a very rich crossing over of artistic influences going on in Northampton,” she says.
But Olsen wanted to get back to teaching. “I felt really full of information to share,” she recalls. “But I did want to continue the work with a professional company. The Dance Company of Middlebury was a draw because it felt like a way to be in both worlds… and with funding!”
Soon, Olsen and fellow dance professor Tarin Chaplin got to work writing proposals to have dance accepted as a major. “It was the beginning of the era when dancers were tenured,” Olsen says. “That shift into a kind of permanency” was key to establishing the dance program Middlebury has today, she adds.
These days the department has four full-time faculty members — Penny Campbell, Olsen, Christal Brown and Catherine Cabeen — a lighting designer, Jennifer Ponder, and two musicians — Ron Rost and Michael Chorney, who have been with the department from the start.
Cabeen, who joined the department last fall, is the newest addition. A former dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and the Martha Graham Dance Company, she continues to direct an interdisciplinary performance group called Catherine Cabeen and Company, based in Seattle.
The DCM, for which members now earn college credit, is intense. Dancers are accepted by audition and then rehearse two hours a day, five days a week, and many weekends throughout the year. During January term, they dance all day, every day.
The company has diversified over the years. Interdisciplinary initiatives such as the environmental studies program — Olsen is the John C. Elder professor of environmental studies — have brought in students who might not otherwise have discovered dance.
Throughout the company’s history, members have consistently gone on to pursue dance after college. Of the seven to nine members each year, Olsen says, two or three end up dancing professionally or in an academic setting. “Because they have company experience, they have a real head start,” says Olsen.
And the essence has remained the same. “Middlebury is known for our creative work,” Olsen says. “You can’t just be a dancer; you also have to be a choreographer.”
"Simply Light," performed by the Dance Company of Middlebury. Friday and Saturday, January 25 and 26, 8 p.m. at the Mahaney Center for the Arts Dance Theatre, Middlebury College. $12/10/6. go.middlebury.edu/arts