Vanessa Voskuil premieres large-scale dance The Student at O'Shaughnessy

After a two-year exploration, director and dance maker Vanessa Voskuil presents the culmination of her large-scale dance- and music-theater piece, The Student, this weekend at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium as part St. Catherine University's Women of Substance series. Premiering on Thursday, the work features about 70 local dancers, actors, and community members, plus 100 student vocalists from St. Catherine University, Hamline University, and Perpich Center for the Arts Education.
There are two audiences in large-scale works like en masse and The Student, Voskuil explains. There's the people participating in the work, who are actively engaged in the rehearsal process, and then there's the spectator audience. 

Working with a large cast is something Voskuil has been doing since 2009, when she created a piece titled en masse, featuring 74 dancers plus herself, for which she won a SAGE award. For Voskuil, the number of people involved in the work is dictated by the topic she's interested in. At the same time, it also comes from a place of "wanting to create a community within the work," she says. 

One of the challenges of working with such a large cast is "moving large amounts of people in the same direction," she says. "The challenge is how to do that in a way that is the most effective for learning. How do you make sure everyone is safe and comfortable?" 

The Student has been a couple of years in the making, with different incarnations. The piece started at a residency at International Music Camp (on the borders of North Dakota and Canada), where she worked on the imagery with a younger population. The content was shaped further during a residency at Zenon's Zone program, where Voskuil began developing the text. Voskuil then developed the piece more at the American Dance Festival, as well as at the Soap Factory last fall as part of Impetus. 

In November, Voskuil sent out an open call to the general community, inviting people to participate in the work. Besides recruiting community members who had various degrees of experience -- if at all -- Voskuil also enlisted a group of professional performers, including Paul Herwig, co-artistic director of Off-Leash Area; Suzanne Costello, co-artistic director of Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater; and dancers Jesse Neumann-Peterson  (SPDT), Jessica Fiala, (Ragamala), Eve Schulte (James Sewell Ballet), and Timmy Wagner (Arena Dances and Body Cartography Project). Voskuil also worked with composer Janika Vandervelde and sound artist/producer Jesse Whitney of A. Wolf & Her Claws to produce an original score. 
The main image that Voskuil is working with is "looking at the theater as a body, or as an alive space,"  she says. In addition, she's trying to create a phenomenon of all the performers as one person, one student split into different shards of themselves. Inside of that, there's a person "unconscious and closed off, delving into parts of themselves that we don't want to see. How do we walk through it and move on to the next moment?" 

Through this piece, Voskuil was interested in finding more about herself. "It's very humbling, making what is inside my mind come alive onstage," she says.  

Voskuil began her career with a theater background, studying directing at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. Eventually, she realized she wanted to follow more of a movement focus, and ended up auditioning three times for the dance department at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. A former co-artistic director of Live Action Set, Voskuil's work utilizes lots of text, and incorporates dramatic action, living in a space between dance and physical theater. 


The Student
7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday
O'Shaughnessy  Auditorium

The Student Trailer from Vanessa Voskuil on Vimeo.