MFA Dancers Become Instruments

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Photo by Sara Stubbs

Joanna Ursal, a graduate candidate in the Jacksonville University Master of Fine Arts Choreography Program, is intrigued by stories.

As she introduced her thesis project to an audience of about 30 people in the lower room of the Alexander Brest Dance Pavilion, she described her inspiration as “embodied identity in motion.”

“I use the dancers, not just as instruments to create dance but as a way to create poetry onstage, to tell stories,” said Ursal.

The dancers’ individual stories, together with her own background, merged into a contemporary dance with Filipino and Afro-Cuban elements, she said.

Ursal began her presentation with a brief original film of dancers on the beach, their fluid movements along driftwood matched by the motion of waves and wind. She then invited the audience to follow her to the studio where the performance would take place. As they ascended the staircase, spectators looked at pictures and quotes illustrating the dancers’ personalities.

Ursal’s choreography evoked emotions ranging from timid desire to hostility. It united subtle hand movements and theatrical capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts form. The eclectic playlist incorporated eastern, classical and African songs together with the poignant use of silence and even a dramatic interpretation of the 23rd Psalm.

“It’s a good mix of cultures,” said Lily Ursal, Joanna’s mother.

She said that the showing on April 15 was the first time she’d seen the completed piece.

“I have witnessed her dances from UCLA to the University of Michigan to now here,” she said. “You can tell there’s a story, although I don’t really know exactly what it is.”

In her closing remarks, the choreographer explained only one of the stories that inspired her work. This one came from Sabrina Chiang, a senior whose injury around the time of the final dress rehearsal prevented her from dancing her original part.

During colonial times, said Chiang, Native Americans captured her eighth great-grandmother, Hannah Duston (or Dustin), forced her to trek through North America and killed her newborn daughter. Duston led a successful rebellion against her captors and has the distinction of being the first woman in the United States to be honored with a public statue.

Ursal said that she selected students to perform her choreography based on what she learned from observing and talking to them.

“I’ve been watching the students, and I thought, ‘Those are the students I want to work with,’” she said. “A lot of the classes, we were just talking. We’d go and sit on the floor and not move, just talk. It came about organically.”

Sophomore Marissa Garcia appreciated how every member of the ensemble supported Ursal’s vision of culture and identity.

“All of the dancers are in touch with their backgrounds,” she said.

Manrique Torrens, a freshman, said that choreographers typically don’t spend so much time trying to get to know dancers on a personal level. Working with Ursal was a great learning experience.

“It was life-changing, really,” he said. “It was about finding myself. This was really collaborative, really amazing. It was like being part of a real company.”

Ursal’s presentation was the last in the “MFA in the Works” series, which began last week. For Ursal, it marked the climax of a process that started in October. In closing, she expressed gratitude for the dancers who supported that process.

“I could not have done it without them,” she said. “It was really a collaborative effort between the dancers and myself. There is so much talent in this department.”

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