“Through darkness and light”-it sounds like a wedding vow, but it’s the name of UCSB’s fall dance concert, opening this Friday at the Hatlen Theatre. It’s no coincidence that the name conjures both the mercurial quality of human experience and the commitment it takes to stick with it; the works included touch on everything from love and grace to insanity and death.
This year’s concert is directed by Tonia Shimin, longtime professor in UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance, and includes choreography by four students in the department, as well as by faculty members Valerie Huston and Christopher Pilafian, and guest artist Carley Conder. Though the program is thematically diverse, there are common currents: Huston’s “The Velvet Touch,” Pilafian’s “Oracle,” and student Jaclyn Speas’s “Broken Affinity” examine personal relationships, human connection, and the consequences of betrayal, while Conder’s “Stolen Time” and Sophia Formosa’s “Shrouded Awakening” both address issues of loss and struggle. Sounds like more darkness than light, but Shimin, who has directed more than 20 concerts since she joined the department in 1980, says this program is characterized by its levity. “What fascinates me is that each show is so different,” she said. “While some of the ideas are universal and have been approached many ways before, each choreographer always brings a fresh approach. This show has a lovely humor to it, even with the darker subjects. I think people are in touch with feelings and human nature.”
This show is particularly significant for Shimin-at the end of this quarter, she retires after more than 25 years in the department. Reflecting on those years, and on how the program has grown, Shimin was buoyant. “I think I’m leaving at a very exciting time for them, and it feels wonderful to have been part of the building up to it,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens in the department-I think we’re on a very good road here.”
Among the most exciting events in the department’s immediate future is a collaboration between the student company and professional modern dance company Santa Barbara Dance Theatre (SBDT) that will take both groups on a tour of China this winter. The program they will be performing includes Conder and Huston’s works from the fall dance concert, as well as works from SBDT’s repertoire. SBDT Artistic Director Jerry Pearson, who also teaches choreography in the UCSB department, is thrilled about the project. After a successful tour of China with SBDT earlier this year, Pearson was invited to return, but he was also told that Chinese audiences favor large groups of dancers, and especially like ballet. Teaming up with the department and commissioning ballet choreographer Conder to set her work on the student company proved the perfect solution, as well as an unprecedented opportunity for the student dancers.
Reflecting on Shimin’s role in the department, Pearson was enthusiastic. “Tonia has been a fantastic teacher, a wonderful mentor and colleague, and such a solid person with a wealth of experience,” he said. “In New York, she worked with the pioneers of modern dance-Martha Graham and Jose Lim³n-and she reflects the true sincerity of where dance comes from. She’s one of those people whose life is dance, and everyone who works with her gets that. It’s been really important for us to have someone like that on the faculty.” As for how Shimin’s expertise and her love of dance have affected the department, Pearson said, “She has provided an anchor in honest, fundamental dance, and I think that’s become the basis of what the department is about.”
Unsurprisingly, Shimin’s involvement in the world of dance does not end with her departure from teaching; she is already choreographing a new piece on SBDT for its January season, called “In Our Own Light,” and she looks forward to continuing her work in dance film. “I feel I’ll stay connected to the department in some way,” she said. “I love the people I work with.”
As for this weekend’s concert, Shimin sees it not as an endpoint, but as part of the department’s ongoing process. “It’s wonderful to witness the joy the choreographers have in getting their ideas out,” she said. “I’d say that’s always been present.”
The UCSB Department of Theater and Dance presents Through Darkness & Light at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre on Friday, November 30, and Saturday, December 1, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, December 2, at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, call 893-7221.