B.F.A. Dance students back in front of live audiences

Roger Coda
dancers performing on stage

Fredonia students perform “Full Blown” at the Multi-Use Community Cultural Center in Rochester, N.Y.

It was an invigorating return to live performance for SUNY Fredonia Dance students this summer, presenting the world premiere of “Fluff” in New York City alongside dancers from three other colleges and also appearing in two events in Western New York.

“Performing in front of a live audience again was exhilarating,” recalls Virginia Raffaele, a senior majoring in Dance and Theatre Arts from Pittsford. “After being cooped up indoors for so long and resorting to sharing our performances virtually, I forgot how exciting and energizing it is to dance in front of a live audience.”

The last time Fredonia students in the B.F.A. program danced in front of an audience was in March 2020, at an American College Dance Association regional event at SUNY Potsdam.

Dancing in front of an audience again felt like returning home after being away for a very long time for Aja Pandey, a senior majoring in Dance with a minor in Theatre Arts from Shrewsbury, Mass.

“Getting to feel the energy off the audience is something that can’t be recreated or even explained sometimes; the best way I can put it is almost euphoric. After a year getting to connect with people in person was something that brought a rush of joy and tears of happiness,” Ms. Pandey said.

Dance Assistant Professor Anthony Alterio remembers initial anxiety among his students before their first live performance. “There was some nervousness of, ‘we haven’t done this for a while,’ but that was beforehand. As soon as the performance was over, it was just like riding a bike. They wanted to do more live performances!”

Mr. Alterio accompanied dancers to three venues across the state: Dixon Place, in New York City, for the Hot Dance! Festival; Jamestown Public Market, for the first-ever Jamestown (N.Y.) Pride event and the Multi-Use Community Cultural Center Theatre, for Dances at MuCCC in Rochester, N.Y.

While students gave Zoom presentations during the coronavirus pandemic, that alternative pales to an in-person experience.

“One thing from live performances is that they can feel the energy from the audience, rather than from the camera – it doesn’t give anything back,” Alterio said. “It’s called kinesthetic empathy,” he said. “Audiences of dance experience kinesthetic empathy, even sitting still in a crowded space, they can feel as if they are participating in the movements of the performers they observe, and can even experience related feelings and ideas that connect them without physical touch or conversation.”

For what’s believed to be a program first, Fredonia Dance students, in the Hot Dance! Festival, were cast together with students from other schools in the same production. Three Fredonia students – Aja Pandey, Emma Voit and Ms. Raffaele – performed “Fluff” with students from SUNY Brockport, Nazareth College and Mercyhurst University.

“Students had performed alongside other students in shows, but never before in the same pieces,” Alterio explained. That often doesn’t happen until after students graduate, he added. “They were very excited, and they bonded so quickly.”

What dancers really missed

Dancing live brought back energy that Raffaele hadn’t realize she was missing when dancers moved to an online platform and danced on their own. “I think we took live performance for granted prior to COVID; it's definitely not something I will be taking for granted moving forward as an artist,” she said.

The Fredonia contingent was one of five ensembles on the playbill of the HOT Dance! Festival, a showcase of theatre, dance and performance art comprising only LGBTQIA+ works. Dixon Place, an artistic incubator that presents original works of theatre, dance, music, puppetry, circus arts, literature and visual art, hosted the Aug. 13 event.

The dancers’ return to live performance, featuring another Alterio work, “Full Blown,” was held June 12 at Jamestown Pride, an event that supports the LBGTQIA+ community in Western New York. Joining the Raffaele-Pandey-Voit trio in the cast were Mikayla Johnson and Desi VanDyke.

Two more B.F.A. Dance students, Kory Randles, a junior, and Eleanor “Ella” Fish, a sophomore, with a minor in Dance Studio Administration, both from Buffalo, were added to “Full Blown” was recorded live at the MuCCC’s Festival of Contemporary Dance and presented online from June 30 to July 2.

For Raffaele, the biggest takeaway from this experience is that art doesn’t have to stop due to a pandemic. “I think if anything this pandemic has proven that we as artists can't be stopped and that we can all bounce back and always find another way to do things.”

Raffaele, who emigrated to the United States from Italy in 2012, will use these performances to build a portfolio and pursue a dance career to strengthen her case to remain in the United States after she ages out of her parents’ visa.

Being grateful for every opportunity to perform live is a major takeaway for Pandey. Pandemics can happen suddenly and change the course of live performance, she said, “so really learning to enjoy every aspect and moment of performing is something I’m beginning to do more of, because before the pandemic we became so used to the luxury of getting to perform in person so often.”

Alterio has created numerous opportunities for students to perform throughout New York state and beyond, Pandey explained, providing dancers with experiences and connections that can last a lifetime. It’s through these experiences, she said, dancers gain an understanding of what it’s like to be in the professional world and how to interact with other artists.

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