BIG DOINGS AT the U of M dance program this weekend, when its students present their annual spring concert. It features what I'd call some serious choreography, including signature works by some of the country's most accomplished choreographers: Lar Lubovitch's "Marimba," David Parsons's "Envelope," Daniel Nagrin's "Strange Hero," Joe Chvala's "Red Walls," Doug Varone's "Toward a Bright Light of Day," and Shapiro and Smith's "To Have and To Hold." So remarkable is the lineup that you're inclined to give program head Maria Cheng the benefit of the doubt when she boasts, "I really think it will be one of the best modern dance concerts you'll ever see, simply because of the depth of choreography."
So why the five-star program? This year's concert by the University Dance Theatre marks the 10th anniversary of the dance program joining the Department of Theatre Arts (which might not sound like a big deal until you consider that modern dance programs in the U.S. are often relegated to college phys-ed departments). Since the move, the U of M's dance program has been going great guns. One component of its success is the Cowles Chair, which has brought in artists like Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, Ralph Lemon, BeBe Miller, and Doug Varone for extended residencies. In addition, the program's faculty includes a good number of adjuncts from the Twin Cities professional dance community, including Paula Mann, Erin Thompson, and Danny Buraczeski. Such contact has helped the U of M to win a string of national college dance awards and to churn out numerous professional dancers upon graduation. The program has grown to serve more than 70 students majoring in dance.
Although Cheng is stepping down later this year to take a breather as department head and pursue her own creative life, she does so with a rather elegant swan song. As part of this weekend's festivities, the dance program will break ground for a new facility. Sited on Riverside Avenue across from the People's Center, the dance center (scheduled to open in 1998) will have three professional studios, one of which will be a state-of-the-art studio theater. After years of planning and fund-raising, the University and the greater dance community should indeed be celebrating. "After programmatic needs are addressed--meaning after we service our students with the major curriculum--we definitely want the community to make use of this building," Cheng says. "It's a dance building and we want it to be filled with the performance of dance as often as possible."