MORAGA -- In the dance world, as in life, letting go is hardest.
A new show (Dec. 5-8) and two brand new graduate programs in the dance department at Saint Mary's College in Moraga promise release.
For the eight seniors presenting their work at the annual fall concert, "Horizons," four years of study and reflection will burst forth in the form of choreography.
Professor Catherine Marie Davalos, also the school's director of dance, says themes of survival and struggle braid themselves into the student pieces' classic stories of good and evil and of free will and fate. Lighter fare, in Jenny Glosser's "Tap That," and Christina Nelson's yet-to-be-titled childlike exploration of adult situations, expands the evening's emotional range. A dance by Martha Claire Pile, faculty member Jia Wu's, "Broken Windows, Damaged Hinges" and Kelsey Peterson's "From the Dust," will be on the program and will represent SMC at next April's American College Dance Festival Association's West Region Conference in Arizona.
"My piece is about prayer and moments when you have nothing left," Peterson said in an interview. "It's the times when you're grasping for light."
Peterson was 4 when her mother died. Her only memories are of sitting on her mother's lap. But she is haunted -- during periodic, wave-like depressions -- by her role in her mother's death.
"My birth triggered her multiple sclerosis," Peterson says. "Especially during middle school, a period of blame triggered self-harm."
Peterson said she tried cutting, burning, starving and exercising away the demons. Her family didn't understand -- they couldn't, because she couldn't talk about it.
"This piece is about those alone moments when I've thrown myself at God's feet. And there's someone there who pulls me out. Because self-harmful thoughts are an addiction, I can go back into them. The last time, a friend pulled me out by sending me a two-word text: 'Be Alive.' "
Translated into dance, a downstage corner is "a hopeful corner" where the dancers embrace the space and grasp each other, forming human lifelines. Peterson says she is praying when she is dancing: reaching for peace through movement.
And next June, Peterson hopes to be one of the department's first Master of Fine Arts in Dance candidates while also studying for her Masters of Divinity at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.
Davalos says the new graduate program will position students to be the commanders of a breakthrough moment in 21st century dance.
"We're exploring issues of oppression and expression: questions the world is struggling with," she said. "What I like is that dance is exploring different styles and fielding diverse body-types."
SMC will offer two different tracks within the department: Creative Practice and Design and Production. Each 60-unit course of study focuses on four primary areas related to its emphasis, with overlapping courses forming a symbiotic whole structure. the Creative Practice program is designed with working professionals in mind: its three-June and two-January segments require low-residency. The Design and Production master's program follows the regular calendar and will require two years to complete.
Most remarkably, Davalos' department has been awarded two graduate degree programs by a college with just one other MFA degree (in Creative Writing). Add to that the national trend toward academic cutbacks (plus, this will be the country's first-ever Design and Production for dance master's degree program) and the tiny liberal arts college's program is miraculous.
"We originally proposed three degrees," Davalos says, laughing. "That would have made us the largest masters' program in the country."
Gaining approval within two years of their first proposal required skillful hoop jumping. Davalos and Linda Baumgardner, C&P Director, researched jobs in the arts; presenting Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Studies Chris Sindt with big data proving advanced arts degrees result in employment. Startup funding came after tweaks (and trims) were made and Davalos says they now face what all tuition-driven departments face: attracting enough students to make budget.
With a priority deadline of Jan. 2 for admission June 2014, Baumgardner says the richness of the degrees is drawing applicants.
"The (Design & Production) emphasis will be on the whole field of dance: lights, sound, costumes, producing, grant writing. And the collaboration with the choreographers in the CP program will be potent," she says.
"We're an option for the thinking dancer, not just someone who wants to train," Davalos says. "We're looking for choreographers who will refine and define who they are and what dance in the 21st century will be."
"Horizons" runs Dec. 5, 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. in the LeFevre Theatre on the Saint Mary's College campus in Moraga. Tickets are $5 general admission and free to Saint Mary's students with ID. For information, contact Sharon Cahill at 925-6311-4670 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For reservations call 925-631-4670. Online tickets are also available at brownpapertickets. com.
Master's in Dance
For information about the MFA in Dance, visit http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/mfa-in-dance/about-the-mfa-in-dance