Acclaimed Dance Company Brings its Talents to Sheridan
Daniel Gwirtzman, producer, educator, filmmaker and performer, celebrates 25 years as a New York choreographer and company director. His repertory has earned praise for its humor, stylistic diversity, musicality, charisma and accessibility. “Mr. Gwirtzman does know that in dance less can be more. And that’s a good thing for any choreographer to know,” writes The New York Times. The New Yorker describes him as a choreographer of “high spirits and skill.”
The acclaimed New York-based nonprofit Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company (DGDC) commemorates its 20th Anniversary season with a performance showcased at such renowned events as the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, Fire Island Dance Festival, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Kennedy Center, Bryant Park and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The company’s dance films have screened in national and international festivals, including the American Dance Festival, and DGDC has also been awarded residencies by New York’s Joyce Theater, Raumars (Finland), Sacatar (Brazil), Djerassi (California), Skafiotes (Greece), Maison Dora Maar, (France), Centro Negra (Spain), Gdanski Festiwal Tanca (Poland) and The Studios of Key West.
Since its inception, the nonprofit has demonstrated a commitment to education through multigenerational interactive programming.
Copy provided by Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company
Enormous silver hoop earrings flew as Sheridan College Dance Instructor Stephanie Koltiska leaped into the air with a twist before landing on her toes only to twist off again. “Here we go, 5,6,7,8…,” she said, and her beginning jazz class immediately jumped into line, conscientiously watching their respective forms in the luminous mirrors lining the front wall of the WYO Theater dance studio in downtown Sheridan. Spinning across the floor like tops, students of all ages and sizes fell into line behind Koltiska, as they made their way through the first half of the Gwirtzman’s choreography, which in less than a month, they’ll be performing alongside the professional dancers of the New York-based Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company.
“Add your own style. Be you!” Koltiska called over her shoulder before shutting off the music to give her students a much-needed break. As a handful crumpled dramatically onto the floor, others made a beeline to the drinking fountain, huffing and out of breath.
With only a few weeks into the semester, the choreography is challenging for the beginning jazz class, but what they lack in skill, they more than make up for in spirit, she observed, as her students gamely fell back into formation for a second take.
Koltiska has been working hard for the past two years to introduce a dance emphasis track within the college’s theater and dance associate’s art degree program, and this spring, she’ll watch her first two students graduate. In fact, it was her passion for dance and affinity for her students that inspired Koltiska to put in the work to push the program forward.
“I finally felt like I had two students who were hungry for dance, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” she said. “My overall vision for this degree track is to offer students access to every ounce of knowledge I’ve acquired over my 15-year professional dancing career, both as a performer and instructor.”
And Koltiska has extensive experience to share. Originally from Sheridan, she has danced her way from coast to coast. After receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a freelance modern dance performer for numerous companies around the Bay Area, most notably performing with La Alternativa (formerly Motion Lab) and Robert Moses’ Kin, with whom she took on a solo role in the world premiere of “Draft.”
After performing and touring the West Coast for roughly half a decade, Koltiska ventured east, moving to New York City, where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance performance and pedagogy at SUNY Purchase. While living in the Big Apple, she performed world-renowned works by choreographers such as Lester Horton, Carmen de Lavallade, Regina Larkin, Lisa Race, Larry Keigwin and Mark Morris Dance.
Sharing her passion for movement and introducing her students to a wide variety of choreographers and dance professionals is part of her primary aim. Over the last year, she has brought in companies from both San Francisco and New York, most recently working with The Whitney Center for the Arts to bring the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company to Sheridan.
“I’ve made it my mission to bring in guest artists from across the United States to work with our community college students in hopes of connecting them with the greater dance community,” she said. “Right now, I am only one voice for these students, and I know that they need to work with as many teachers and choreographers as possible.”
She sees great opportunities for dancers in the area and plans to continue to reach out to companies big and small to help inspire and connect Sheridan College dance students with professional dancers, choreographers and dance companies.”
“The world of dance seems so large when you are first getting started,” she said, “but I have found how interconnected it truly is, and I hope to help connect those dots for young artists (and) to help cultivate connections as they begin their journeys.”
To that end, she’s determined to see students transfer to four-year colleges to earn their BFA, or dive right into the world of professional dance from the get-go. She’d like to one day have a “resident” dance company that comes every other year on a regular basis while working in a different choreographer or company in the years between.
“Why can’t a small community college in Sheridan have a stellar dance program?” she said. “My goal is to build one.”
The Dance Company
Gwirtzman is more than happy to help Koltiska. The two met last year when he was doing a fellowship at Ucross during which he reached out to Koltiska, who in turn, invited him to the college to teach a master class.
It went well, both for him and the students.
“It was a wonderful experience for me,” he said in late September by phone from his Tribeca home in New York City. “I enjoyed seeing so many students come to class, including the theatre students who had never taken dance classes before.”
Koltiska was excited for his company to come back for a performance this fall. The “Welcome to The World of Dance” show on Oct. 20 falls in conjunction with the company’s 20th anniversary, and he’s excited to see the dance program, and dance in general, growing within the Sheridan community.
“A big part of our doing this as a company was to support that (growth),” he said. “It’s a big deal and we want to really build on that and help them to diversify their program.”
Along with performing, teaching students is a big part of what they do, Gwirtzman said, including educating the community about modern dance and breaking down some of the pre-existing misconceptions about dance in general.
“It’s a dance party,” he said. “Our goal is to engage all facets of the community, to see one’s community represented on stage regardless of age or level.”
Dance is one of the more elusive arts, Gwirtzman noted, and as such, one of the least accessible.
“There’s a big disconnect when it comes to dance,” he said, “and I’d like to see some of that demystified.”
Gwirtzman and company will take the time to talk with members of the audience between performances and after the show to answer questions and explain some of the ideas and more technical aspects driving the choreography in an effort to educate the audience on concepts of both modern dance and the overall performance, which includes an interactive dance opportunity at the end in which the audience – of all ages – will be invited to participate.
And though the company could have chosen to take the much easier route and just perform, Gwirtzman has invited various groups throughout the community to join them on stage, including students from Meadowlark Elementary, Sheridan College Theatre and other local dance classes and studios. The company will be arriving five days prior to their performance to practice with these local and regional students leading up to their performance on Sunday.
This is not an easy thing to do. It’s one thing to dance with another person keeping your arms and legs in sync. It’s quite another to dance within inches of another dancer’s face with arms connected, while landing technical moves and keeping balance. Add a three-inch height difference and a dancer who thinks that one of her legs might be “seriously shorter” than the other.
The two dancers, and first two graduates to complete Koltiska’s new dance track, Chelsey Varner and Ivy Harbour have their work cut out for them. They will be performing Gwirtzman’s original choreographed dance “Together,” which even he acknowledges is a pretty hard one to pull off.
“Technically speaking, it’s a highly virtuosic duet,” he said, “requiring mobility, flexibility and strength. It requires asking a dancer to find balance while being connected to another dancer trying to find balance and requires strength and calm to not throw your partner off.”
It also requires the dancers to be literally staring each other in the face, which as Gwirtzman noted, is a challenge for today’s generation who are pretty much born with a device in hand.
A further challenge is learning the moves from a video and practicing without the benefit of having Gwirtzman on hand until four days prior to their performance to help them learn and refine. The pair have been working on the dance since the summer, meeting every week for several hours to decipher, with the help of their teacher, the various choreography.
“This is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Chelsey said. Ivy nodded.
“It’s definitely made us closer,” Ivy said with a laugh, as she explained the process of concentrating to match Chelsey’s breathing, balance each other’s weight and movements. “We’re learning to use each other to hold each other steady, both in dance and in life.”
The two come from very different worlds. Ivy, now 26, grew up in a house where her parents loved to dance but she didn’t take many classes formally, and instead, she and her sister taught themselves to dance via Youtube videos. Later, when she tried out for the dance program at the University of Wyoming, she was rawer than a lot of the others with more formal training, but she placed in the program and studied modern, ballet and jazz. She graduated with a degree in fine arts that encompassed studio arts as well. Once home, she’d heard that Sheridan College dance instructor Stephanie Koltiska was in the process of creating an accredited degree program for dance and she joined, mainly because of the teacher.
“When I was a little kid, I saw Stephanie dancing and thought I want to do that. I want to be a dancer,” she said.
Chelsey, on the other hand, grew up dancing pretty much as soon as she could walk, taking classes from Sheridan-based Donna’s Dance Academy where she learned jazz, modern, ballet and contemporary dance, classes that she has since returned to teach. Now 19, she went straight into the program at Sheridan College. Now, she’s trying to figure out where she wants to go next.
Meanwhile, Ivy is engaged to be married and trying to map out her own future.
Both girls are at a crossroads, and this unknown helps connect as they work through the rigor of classes and perfectly this piece.
To help them bond, Gwirtzman suggested they find a shared theme or story, which in the end, they decided was their own uncertain futures, which they use to literally find a way to help keep them balanced. “It’s changed our friendship,” Chelsey added.
Later when they perform their duet in front of their classmates in jazz class, one older student will comment that it brought her to tears while others remark about the beauty, intensity and skill of the two dancers.
One of the “Older Gals”
Mary Beth never imagined she’d ever step into a dance studio again. At 64, the retired kindergarten teacher had danced in high school and college but hadn’t put on a leotard in decades. Nonetheless, her ears perked up when friend told her about Koltiska’s dance classes at Sheridan College. She thought, “Hot diggity! I’m going to do it!”
Turns out, she was not the only “older gal in class,” owing in large part to Stephanie’s contagious excitement and enthusiasm for her students.
“She’s the best teacher you will ever find; she’s so encouraging and affirming,” Mary Beth said. “Her goal is to share the love of dance and makes everyone feel like they’re a dancer, no matter their level or age.”
Standing in a black leotard in the lobby of Wyoming Theater on a break from Monday morning’s jazz class, Mary Beth couldn’t say enough good things about the class or her teacher. Right now, they’re practicing for their performance with the professional company on Oct. 20.
Mary Beth admits that she’s not in the classes for the performances but rather thinks it’s an excellent – not to mention fun – way to stay fit and exercise. She’s not in it for the degree, but appreciates the structure of the semester-long course and all the variety of classes and camaraderie with the younger students, who like Stephanie, are welcoming.
“It’s awesome,” she said as she made her way onto the dance floor.
Jen C. Kocher
Photos: Taylor Helton