Durell Comedy, BFA ’08, got the chance of a lifetime just under a year after graduating from Mason’s School of Dance. He was a contract dancer with CorbinDances, looking for a full-time permanent home with a dance company.
He recalls being roused by phone calls and e-mails one Friday morning after a performance with the New York-based modern dance company in which he had subbed for injured artistic director Patrick Corbin.
“I got all these text messages and e-mails and voicemails telling me to check the newspaper. I remember thinking, ‘Why would I check the newspaper?’” Comedy says with a laugh. When he went to the newspaper’s website, he saw his name in the headline for a review of the CorbinDances company.
And that was when it hit him—he had gotten his first New York Times review, a feat for which some dancers wait their entire career. Not only was it a review, it was a good review. The dance reviewer said of Comedy, “He is a scrupulous dancer with a serious jump.”
“I was shocked,” Comedy says. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was just doing what I loved.”
Says Elizabeth Price, director of Mason’s School of Dance, “It was really a ‘Star Is Born’ moment for him.”
And while Comedy, who is now a full-time traveling dancer with Limón Dance, is certainly a star alumnus, he is far from being the only successful graduate from Mason’s small and competitive program. Dance alumni are performing with such well-known companies as Mark Morris Dance Group and the Parsons Dance Company. Dance alumni are also teaching, choreographing, and planning dance performances.
By all accounts, the program is highly regarded within the industry. Price says she is thrilled when looking through dance performance programs for the dancer bios and finds the names of Mason alumni appearing on the same page as those of Juilliard, Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and the North Carolina School of the Arts.
But don’t just take our word for it—Mason gets high praise from some of the most esteemed professional choreographers in the country.
According to Mark Morris, the famed dancer, choreographer, and director who received an honorary doctorate from Mason in 2006, “Everyone in my company loves visiting George Mason University. It’s a place where we can perform for an audience that loves dance and a place where we can teach students who love to dance. What could be better than that? It’s an inspiring environment.
“I hold Mason’s dance program in high regard. The program is really doing something right,” he says.
Making Dance a Priority
From its reputation in the field of dance these days, you wouldn’t guess that Mason’s School of Dance had its humble beginnings in the university’s Field House. Price explains that the program’s growth really began under the tutelage of former university president George Johnson and former dance program director Linda Miller, now senior associate dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
“George’s wife, Joanne, loves dance—she used to dance—and George was a real advocate of the arts,” Price says. The concept behind the arts programming Joanne helped create while first lady of the university was that every student here would be exposed to the arts, says Price, and that the arts would be pervasive on campus.
The program has since “taken on a life of its own,” Price says. In 1989, when it found its current home in what is now the de Laski Performing Arts Building (see sidebar at the end), the seriousness of the program increased dramatically. At the same time, the Center for the Arts opened, which gave dance students a wonderful venue in which to perform and view dance and also lured professional dance acts to the Fairfax Campus.
Later on, the program began requiring an audition, which also helped step up its competitiveness in the dance world.
“Auditioning allowed us to shape a class that had similar capabilities,” explains Price. While many university dance programs do not require an audition for admission for its majors, conservatory programs, such as Juilliard, do.
This distinction is just one reason that many call Mason’s dance program a “conservatory within a university.” Mason’s approach seeks to emphasize both the exemplary dance training received at conservatories and the liberal arts perspective that will serve them well when their dance careers are over or they decide to go into another profession.
Price says that program alumni have gone on to different career paths—including law school, medical school, and business school—and being part of a university gives graduates the education they need to succeed in any area, not just dance.
“I knew I wanted to study dance at a school with an exceptional dance program, as well as a strong focus on academic excellence,” says Carolyn Palffy, a junior dance major from Winchester, Virginia. “Mason seemed like the best of both worlds because I could concentrate on my dancing and still be challenged academically.”
Be Our Guest
One of the cornerstones of the program—and what makes it decidedly like a conservatory—is the guest artist residency program. Through the residency, professional choreographers are invited to Mason to audition, set, and rehearse one of their works with the dance students.
Associate professor Dan Joyce, MFA ’03, a 10-year veteran of Mark Morris Dance Group, says this guest artist program is a key reason for Mason’s success.
“Working for Mark Morris, I taught master classes at universities around the country,” Joyce says. “I had seen a lot of university programs, and they can sometimes be focused on the choreography of their faculty. To me, that’s sort of like training to become a classical musician, but you never played Mozart.”
At Mason, they bring in the Mozarts of the dance world to teach their students through the guest artist program. Joyce says Mason’s program really impressed him because it brought in “major works from outstanding working choreographers.”
It’s set up much like the professional world of dance that students will encounter when they graduate. Choreographers audition students, cast them as performers or understudies, and then teach the students the specific work, called “setting” the piece. This process is typically done over the course of a week to 10 days, when students will practice every day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Palffy was one of the students chosen for this semester’s guest artist piece, “Promenade,” a work created by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s artistic director Robert Battle.
Throughout the semester, Palffy and the other students who were cast rehearse the piece under the supervision of a Mason faculty member. The piece is performed at the school’s Gala Concert in the spring.
“I feel like any dream or goal is within my reach because of the training and experiences I’ve had at Mason,” says Palffy.
From Twyla Tharp to Lar Lubovitch, giants in the field of dance have made the trek to Fairfax, Virginia. Or, more accurately, their choreography and rehearsal directors have.
Price describes a cycle in which Mason dancers meet and rehearse for professional choreographers as part of the guest artist residency program, go on to join those choreographers’ companies on graduation, then return to Mason as alumni, dancing as professionals at the Center for Arts.
“That was always our dream for the program,” says Price. “And now it’s starting to be realized.”
In February, when Mark Morris Dance Group came to Mason to perform, two alumni were on stage: Rita Donahue, BFA ’02 and BA English ’02, and Billy Smith, BFA ’07.
“Mason’s dance program prepared me to survive as a professional dancer by allowing me to experience the guest artist series,” says Smith, whose relationship with the group began when he was a student at Mason. “Every year, the program would perform at least two works by professional working choreographers. This taught me how to audition, how to rehearse with time constraints, and how to perform as a professional.”
As a final send-off, all dance majors conclude their final semester with a class called Senior Synthesis, which prepares them for the reality of the dance world.
“My Senior Synthesis class taught me how to properly audition and network, and gave me some specific ways to plan for my future, regardless of what path I decide to take,” says Ashleigh Gurtler, BFA ’08, who is currently a member of CorbinDances and Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre.
As such, she says, “I entered the professional dance world with realistic expectations and a good understanding of how to achieve my goals.”
And who better to teach about the rigors and quirks of the professional dance world than those who have lived it? Mason’s faculty is studded with former dancers. Besides Joyce, there is Susan Shields, MFA ’03 , who was with Lar Lubovitch; Constance Dinapoli, MFA ’09, who was with Paul Taylor; Karen Reedy, BFA ’95 and MFA ’09, who was with Battleworks, Robert Battle’s old company; Jim Lepore, who was with Jóse Limón; and Christopher d’Amboise (whom Joyce refers to as “dance royalty”), who was a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.
“The faculty are phenomenal,” says Price. “They’ve all come from significant professional careers and they’re really dedicated to teaching.”
Shields says, on top of the faculty members’ professional experience, they are also a tight-knit corps who work together to present a cohesive curriculum for their students. One professor’s rhythmic analysis course will build off another’s dance composition course.
“We tie it all together,” Shields says, “and that’s something that’s unique.”
This sort of community is something that Mason alumni and students point to as a favorite aspect of the program. Despite its reputation as a competitive profession, dance graduates say they found warmth, support, and a second family through Mason.
“When I speak to friends I have met in New York and tell them about my college experience, they are usually surprised and a little jealous of everything I was able to do,” says Gurtler. “Some schools don’t get world-renowned choreographers come to set work on their students; some don’t offer any kind of world dance classes or focus solely on one technique; some completely dictate what happens in choreography class and free exploration is not as welcome.”
Many in Mason’s School of Dance can tick off any one of those attributes as the reason why it’s such a wonderful program, but the real strength could be something deeper, something greater, and something much longer lasting. The program may give birth to stars, but the hard part (as any parent knows) is the rearing and nurturing of those stars. And that’s where these faculty members come in.
As Gurtler explains, “Mason fed my love for dance and gave me even more than I knew existed. Because I was a dance major, my heart, if not my body, will always be in dance.”
Sidebar: The de Laski Performing Arts Building Addition
With much fanfare, the addition to the Donald and Nancy de Laski Performing Arts Building was dedicated this past fall. The event was marked by performances by students from the Schools of Dance and Music, which share this 31,000-square-foot addition.
The modern and airy structure is the result of the remarkable generosity of Donald de Laski and his late wife, Nancy, longtime supporters of Mason and the arts.
The entrance to the addition is a two-story student lounge. School of Dance resources include four spacious studios, a completely equipped performance lab, a performing arts medicine clinic, and a full range of digital video equipment.
“The new de Laski wing is a stunning addition to the School of Dance,” says Elizabeth Price, director of the School of Dance. “Current dance majors are thrilled with the soaring new studios, dance major lounge, and conditioning lab. New students are eager to dance in these spacious studios.”
Price says the addition will allow some expansion of the dance program, but the intention is to maintain a selective entering class of dance majors to allow a continued focus on supporting individual student growth.
“We feel certain that the de Laski addition will enhance our ability to attract some of the best dance talent in the country to Mason,” says Price.