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Classic meets contemporary in modern dance

This holiday season I have the privilege of traveling to New York City to spend three weeks being inspired by different art forms. When in the Big Apple, I usually visit my ballet friends at American Ballet Theatre and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. But this week I attended a modern dance class at the well known “STEPS” on Broadway with my daughter and Sierra Nevada Ballet (SNB) principal dancer, Ananda Bena-Weber, who lives part time in New York City and part time in Nevada.

Watching this modern dance class taught by a former dancer, I find myself now (as I have in the past) surprised by the different emphasis in technique. The various signature styles in modern dance require different strengths and different abilities. For instance, there is quite a difference in style when one attends performances by professional modern dance companies such as the Paul Taylor company or the Alvin Ailey or the Martha Graham Company. Many of the styles exhibited by these companies are taken from the individual dancer/choreographer who originated them such as the famous Lester Horton who was, from an early age, very interested in the Native American ethnic dances. This is quite apparent when one watches a “Horton” modern dance class like the one I watched at “STEPS.”

Like Ananda, many professional ballet dancers study modern dance to enhance their ballet technique, as ballet companies are including more and more contemporary choreography in their repertory. Our SNB company is no exception. Last year we featured several contemporary works on our Brew, Brats and Ballet spring program as well as on our summer Dancing by the River program at Wingfield Park.

One of my favorite pieces of choreography done for SNB in the spring of 2016 is “Only the Winds” by Jennifer Boyle August. In fact, this piece has proved to be so popular with both dancers and audience members I have asked Jen to choreograph another piece for SNB in 2017.

Jennifer August discovered her love of modern dance during her time at Reno High School in the early 1990s when she took a modern dance class at TMCC with instruction in Graham, Luigi and Horton dance techniques. While Jen had studied ballet, she found modern dance spoke to her soul in a different way: “What I love about modern dance is its form. You may watch a piece of modern dance, and think, ‘What does that mean?’ What I love is that it might mean something different to you than someone else. Just like a flower may smell different to you than to someone else or a piece of modern art work or sculpture may mean something different to you than to someone else.”

Jen’s interest in modern dance led her to move to Boston upon graduating from high school to study with Joan Palladino at Dean College where she received her associate degree in dance. It was there she was discovered by the famous dancer/director, Judith Jamison, and was invited to study at the Alvin Ailey School in New York.

Jen later received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia with an emphasis on jazz and modern. Jen danced with the Paradigm Dance Company and the Next Step Dance Company in Philadelphia before she moved back to Reno in 2003 to open the In Motion Studio of Dance and start the Black Rock Dance Company. In 2013, Jen decided to spend more time with her two young daughters and stepped away from directing both the school and the company.

Today SNB is very lucky to have Jennifer August teaching modern dance on the staff of the SNB Academy (SNBA). Jen teaches a modern class at SNBA on Mondays at 4:30 p.m. and loves to discuss her teaching philosophy: “With the ever-changing development of dance, particularly in modern, I believe it is important to remember its roots. Educating dancers in the base of modern dance movement, where classic training meets new contemporary-modern movement, is very important — it must not be lost.”

The SNB professional company dancers are very excited to begin 2017 working on Jennifer’s new piece of choreography, which will premiere in April when SNB presents Brew, Brats and Ballet at both the Reno Little Theatre and the Brewery Arts Center. Jen shares: “I love working with the Sierra Nevada Ballet dancers because they have a firm understanding of how classic dance training is important. Some of the structure and architecture of modern dance shapes and lines are different from ballet; however, the dancers at Sierra Nevada Ballet are very adaptable, due to their strong ballet background. I am looking forward to working with the company at Sierra Nevada Ballet again in the new year.”

Presently I (personally) am enjoying my holiday in New York City and plan to return to Reno greatly inspired to begin work with SNB and the SNB Academy for 2017. It is going to be a grand new year!

For information about SNB 2017 performances or classes at SNB Academy (starting on Jan. 9, 2017) visit www.sierranevadaballet.org or call 775-360-8663.

Rosine Bena is the artistic director of the Sierra Nevada Ballet.

Classic meets contemporary in modern dance

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