If they have any desire to graduate, seniors in the VCU Dance department are required to choreograph and organize one graded final piece in lieu of a thesis.
The seniors presented their performances last week in front of their department’s faculty, and will be hearing soon whether or not they’ve passed and will go on to receive their diplomas.
For the dancers, these projects have been in the works for nearly a year. As early as their freshman year, dancers may be selected to perform in another student’s senior choreography, which they will present at the end of both semesters.
Ivy Bryngelson, a senior of the department, prepared a piece that explores the objectification of women. One thing that set her work apart is the level of danger and intensity because of the props that were involved in the performance.
“I have six 3-foot tall, Roman-style pedestals that the dancers dance on top of, move them, lift them up. It’s very dynamic, and very dangerous,” she said.
Bryngelson choreographed, organized and was in charge of the piece titled “Effigy,” aside from some input by her appointed faculty advisor. She began by crafting her plan of what she wanted, and then had to find dancers.
The selection process for the performers of each project isn’t handled by either the seniors or the dancers involved. Instead, the seniors must submit a request for each dancer with specific reasons for why they’d be invaluable for their piece. The faculty decides which dancers are best suited for each choreography, and who performs in each piece.
Karlie Mestas is a former dance student who is working with Bryngelson by creating costumes for her piece and consulting with her on the choreography.
“You can say who you want, but you have to do trading,” Mestas said. “Each underclassman can only be in two senior projects, so you have to argue, you have to battle it out. So, if I want my top dancer, I might end up losing my third choice. Everyone has their dream team of who they want, but every now and then you’ll lose one or two.”
The dance department doesn’t cover any of the costs for the performance outside of the lighting and stage. Students have to cover the costs of costumes, music rights, props and anything else they need for their performance. This year, the department held a fundraiser and met their Kickstarter goal of $3,200.
Often, it falls on the students to find and paint prop pieces, sew together costumes and seek out the music for their piece.
“You have to get very crafty,” Mestas said.
Both seniors noted that their department wasn’t at the top of the list for funding, and that was one of the reasons the student’s were forced to find funding on their own. But, Bryngelson said that it may help to prepare them for professional dance.
“It kind of prepares you for real life,” Bryngelson said. “You go out there and there’s not going to be an institution that says, ‘Let us pay for this!’ It’s not magical like that.”
All of this relies on the seniors actually being selected to perform. Before the final withdrawal date for that semester’s classes, the faculty has each senior present what they have prepared their piece and decide whether or not it’s worthy of being presented at the concert.
If they are not selected to be in the concert, or if they do not receive a passing grade following their concert, they must retake the class the following semester if they want to graduate.
The seniors say that the selection process is daunting, as it’s performed in front of all of the department’s faculty members as well as the graduating seniors.
“They line (all of the faculty) up in this really intimidating, long table on a red carpet,” Bryngelson said. “They just sit there, and after you show your piece they put a chair in front of the table and everyone leaves except for you and them. They tell you everything they thought about your piece and you can’t respond.”
Bryngelson said that she left the process shaking, and had her advisor not been taking notes for her, she would not have remembered any of it.
All the members of the department are required to attend the senior concerts, after which the choreographers are given their final grade, which determines whether or not they’ll graduate that semester.