Arneshia Williams, an MFA candidate in dance at CU Boulder, didn’t get any formal training in her craft until adulthood. Before that, she learned everything she knew about dance from services on Sunday mornings.
“That’s where my training started: inside the church,” Williams says. “I saw my elders shouting and moving with the music in response to a spiritual message. That evolved to me watching MTV and BET videos and dancing along. I wasn’t actually ‘trained’ until I hit 18.”
Few dancers at CU have researched how faith influences movement, but for Williams, it’s a fascinating subject. Her choreographed piece—the “altar” part of a joint concert titled “Alter/Altar”—gets its inspiration from liturgical dance, a name given to movement that serves as an expression of worship to a higher power. Its premiere runs March 3-5 in CU’s Charlotte York Irey Theatre.
Spiritual expression takes many forms, from ballet to Hip-Hop to a gospel choir’s back-and-forth sway. Williams incorporates all of this and more—shouting, West African dance, jazz, house—in a piece that she hopes exposes the creativity, intelligence and power of cultural practices with African roots.
“I’m hoping people take away an understanding that belongs to all humanity: We are here; We are important,” she says. “My hope is that we enact principles that speak to this truth by practicing awareness and action.”
Gwen Ritchie, an MFA student who shares the bill with Williams, also hopes she can “alter” audiences’ views on traditional hierarchy in dance with her work.
“I challenged myself to make a piece that was completely improvisational,” she says.
That’s quite a feat, given that spontaneity is a tricky thing to choreograph. She was moved to try it out after years of dancing in companies where, as she puts it, “I was an empty vessel for a choreographer to fill up.” She wanted to give dancers more agency with improvisation, which essentially puts her, as the choreographer, on an equal footing with the dancers.
“It’s interesting that, in our culture, we place so much value on authorship,” Ritchie says. “In dance, the choreographer is usually the one credited for creating the vision. With improvisation, the power dynamic can change with the shift of a foot. Who’s in charge? It’s difficult to figure out.”
Ritchie says improvisational dance gets a bad rap in the industry. There’s a misconception that it’s so spontaneous that it all comes out looking incoherent and incohesive. But she says what the critics are missing is that good improvisational work is more intentional than they might think. It’s built on the practice of listening for cues, of responding kinetically to each evening’s unique performance environment. Ritchie says the audience itself will provide some of those cues—she’s that serious about the importance of collaboration in art.
“When I teach, I’m coming from this perspective of, ‘Look, I don’t have all the information, and I’m here to learn from you, too,’” she says. “When we fall into prescribed roles in a power structure, there isn’t always this empathy or listening … and I want to try to change that.”