In Fresno State’s ‘Covenants,’ a vibrant ensemble and a promising dance future

Welcome to a new era for dance at Fresno State.

I went Thursday night to the Contemporary Dance Ensemble annual concert, this year titled “Covenants,” at the John Wright Theatre. (One performance remains: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22). The performance was an enticing menu of dance flavors that ranged from the subtle to the fiery. Recent changes to the curriculum are creating a stronger dance program at the university, and I’m impressed by much of what I saw.

Pictured above: A scene from the dance ‘Covenant,’ as performed by the Contemporary Dance Ensemble. Photo: Fresno State

I decided to combine an interview with Fresno State dance professor Kenneth Balint, artistic director of the ensemble, and some of my impressions of the performance. Here is our conversation:

Q: Let’s start off with one detail that impressed me: You have a large number of men in the company, more so than I remember from previous seasons. How many in total? I know it’s often hard for dance organizations to recruit men. How did you do it?

A: The new B.A. in Dance has a lot to do with the influx of new dance students into our program. Interesting enough the percentage of new male applicants has increased dramatically along with the opportunities afforded undergraduate students in the field.


Q: A show such as “Covenants” involves a number of moving parts, including different choreographers. Do you have a master plan for how the show will be put together before the choreographers go to work? (Do you, for example, say to your choreographers, “I need a lively and upbeat piece from you,” or “I need something dark and disturbing here”? Or do they have free rein?

A: The plan starts when I hold auditions in the spring for the next season. (This year’s auditions are April 13 or 15.) I take an inventory of the dancers that will be the ensemble and gauge their strengths and weaknesses against the course curriculum. From there I seek out two guest choreographers to directly and actively help enhance their strengths and challenge their weaknesses while bringing different methodology and viewpoints other than my own into the mix. The guest artists basically have free rein in creating and casting their work. Once those two pieces are set and the student choreographer starts creating his or hers, I take a close look at program content and proceed to challenge myself with filling out the missing links in presenting a varied and diverse production.

Q: Each year you feature work by a student choreographer. How do you select that student? What do you think are the strongest points of “A Symmetry,” the work by this year’s student choreographer, Zachary Segovia?

A: The student choreographer role came about to fit the needs of students who needed repertory length dance works to audition for graduate school. Students interested in the position need to start a dialogue with me the spring before they start creating. Last year, four choreographers sought the position. Each made a presentation of their choreographic intent. Zachary had the best presentation along with a strong history of creative activity, reliability and steadfast commitment to the art form. His work “A Symmetry” will be adjudicated at the American College Dance Association this March. It is a beautifully crafted dance work for a student choreographer. The musical and physical cadence of the piece weaves a clear tactile reference to the gentle wind, chimes and occasional turbulence of a garden setting.

A scene from Kenneth Balint’s ‘6dancers.’

Q: The piece “6dancers,” which you choreographed, is fascinating. (I wrote in my notebook: “quivering limb,” “jungle gym of bodies,” “wet strip of paper,” “live video infinity,” “arrow drops on bullseye,” “heavy breathing.”) There were seven dancers, but one of them spends most of the work immobile on the floor. At the end, I got so caught up in what was going on elsewhere that I didn’t see what ended up happening with her. Can you tell me the significance of the title and that seventh dancer? What else can you tell me about this work?

A: The title bears homage to a dancer who no longer is part of the group, although the group is too wrapped up in its own dynamic to even notice. The seed of the work was a conversation I had with a colleague about my own experience as a young male dancer dealing with what I considered at the time to be nonstop bullying. A secondary theme is the onslaught of constantly being electronically monitored and digitally surveilled.

Q: One of the most striking works in the show is guest choreographer Anandha Ray’s “The Gathering.” When a professional guest choreographer joins you, how long does he or she work with the students? What is that experience like for them?

A: Anandha was here working with the dancers during their first residency of the year. The residency lasted three days, or 15 hours. Within that time frame she set both “The Gathering” and “Covenant.” She is a consummate master teacher and choreographer whose artistry and generosity touched the hearts and souls of the dancers she worked with.

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Q: “The Gathering” starts out with all the dancers buried under piles of plastic wrap. (At first, in Liz Crifasi’s dim and moody lighting, I thought I was looking at a dense, low-hanging fog bank.) The dancers’ hands are upraised and writhing, suggesting a “Night of the Living Dead” cemetery situation, perhaps an allusion to the near-universal fear of being buried alive. I was struck with what I am sure could be considered an odd interpretation: I thought of the work as depicting a sort of mating ritual, in which one “zombie” after another selects a partner, then stands to join the increasing crowd intently watch the ritual continue, until everyone is paired up. (Except one. Which seems significant.) It made me think about the idea that courtship/dating/hooking up/connecting (or whatever you want to call it) is often a very public thing, whether it’s arranged marriages (in old-fashioned times) to gabbing with your friends about your recent date. (I guess this off-the-wall reaction goes to show that, like any artwork, dance can be open to interpretation.) I know you didn’t choreograph “The Gathering,” but can you tell me what your take on it is?

A: Having worked with the choreographer before, I can say that the intent is to allow as many different interpretations as possible. The work, while being structured in many ways, also allows the individual dancer to invest and invent new material in real time as the piece progresses as necessary. The leader, Sahar Das, always starts the piece but the order and content varies widely after that.

Q: Tell us about the upcoming American College Dance Association conference in Arizona.

A: The American College Dance Festival Association exists to support and affirm the role of dance in higher education primarily through the sponsorship of college/university regional conferences and national dance conference. Central to the educational mission of the association is the fostering of creative potential and artistic excellence in choreography and/or performance. Conference events include master classes, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, informal concerts, and adjudication concerts with national and international dance professionals.

CDE will adjudicate two dance works, Zachary Segovia’s “A Symmetry,” and my own “6dancers.” The dancers will be at the conference for five days totally immersed in their art form.

Most of the dancers will say that performing in front of their peers across the western regional will be the highlight. That and being adjudicated on their performance and the pieces choreography.

Q: Finally, the theater department’s official name is now the Department of Theater and Dance. Is that a recent change? What is being done to beef up the dance program at Fresno State? What are your thoughts for the future?

A: Yes – a very recent change!

The biggest difference is the new B.AA in Dance, which replaced the old Theatre Arts Degree with a Dance Option. While it was a long, five-year process, I am so proud and thrilled to now have a challenging and robust dance program available to the dancers of the Fresno State service region.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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