Arts

Alumnus Billy Smith Returns to Choreograph Piece for Dance Gala Concert

By Cathy Cruise

It’s a dismal January day in Fairfax, but inside an expansive rehearsal hall in the de Laski Performing Arts Center, the mood is far less gloomy. Here a dozen dancers are practicing a piece set exclusively for them by none other than Mason alumnus William Smith III, and their enthusiasm is apparent with each graceful turn and leap.

“Despite my slight anxiety, I’m extremely excited to be performing Billy’s piece,” says Katherine Stewart, a sophomore dance major. “I feel so fortunate, as a mere second-year student, to get this type of performance opportunity.”

Mason alumnus Billy Smith is one of the guest choreographers for the School of Dance this semester. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason alumnus Billy Smith is one of the guest choreographers for the School of Dance this semester. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

A 2007 graduate, Smith has taken a brief break from his job with New York’s prestigious Mark Morris Dance Group to rehearse these students for a premiere piece to be performed at the 2013 Gala Concert. The event will take place in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall on March 22 and 23.

And what’s it like on the flip side of the student/teacher role? Not so different, Smith says, since “it matters less who’s in charge than how everyone works together.” And working with student performers as opposed to professional dancers has its perks. “Students are so carefree and fearless. They will try anything you ask of them. They have such passion.”

Smith established himself in the professional dance world when he was chosen to perform with the Parsons Dance Company just days after graduating from Mason. During his two and a half years with Parsons, he was recruited for supplemental works with Mark Morris and was hired full time in 2010.

Mason alumnus Billy Smith works with the dancers who will be performing his piece in the School of Dance's Gala Concert this spring. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason alumnus Billy Smith works with the dancers who will be performing his piece in the School of Dance’s Gala Concert this spring. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The emphasis of the two companies, Smith says, is distinct. “For Parsons, the movement is athletic and visceral and more of a fun dance. Mark is more fine art oriented. It’s almost sacred what he does. It can also be entertaining and fun, but it’s focused on something a little more intangible.”

Smith relies on music to inspire his choreography. For his gala piece, he chose three compositions by Antonin Dvořák, which unfold in three movements and incorporate piano trios and a string quartet. The first movement is energetic and “a little dissonant,” Smith says. “So it’s darker.” The second movement he describes as adage, or “almost like a glacier moving very slowly across this diagonal on the stage. Very beautiful, very minimalistic. And kind of sad.” A lighthearted and harmonious third movement will finish out the piece.

Buffy Price, director of the School of Dance, who taught Smith during his time at Mason, says his return is significant in that it marks “the first time the school has invited an alumnus back to set a work on the dance majors, especially for an event like the Gala Concert.”

Smith and his former professor, Buffy Price, director of Mason's School of Dance, watch the students rehearse. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Smith and his former professor, Buffy Price, director of Mason’s School of Dance, watch the students rehearse. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

“It’s a pretty impressive performance,” she continues, noting four other prominent guest artists who will be featured: Kate Skarpetowska, Diane Coburn Bruning, Camille A. Brown, and Stephen Petronio.

“Billy was a wonderful student, and he’s had a terrific professional career,” Price says. “He’s always been interested in choreography, so it was nice to have him return and be a role model for students. And they’re very excited to work with him.”

This is certainly true for Bronwyn Updike, a junior at Mason with a major in dance and minor in business. Updike says that while students are always encouraged to choreograph one another, “to become involved with Billy was becoming involved with a more mature, passionate version of ourselves. He came directly from the teachers I work with today, and seeing how he dances and choreographs now as an artist gave me hope as to what I could be like in a few years’ time.”

Other dancers performing Smith’s work in the Gala Concert are Megan Ardito, Celine Berthaud, Meredith Hermann, Rachel Klein, Timothy Patterson, Marisa Righi, Justin Ross, Carina Scicchitano, and Lauran Spencer.

Prior to the spring semester, Smith was on campus for a week to teach the dancers his choreography and rehearse the piece. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Prior to the spring semester, Smith was on campus for a week to teach the dancers his choreography and rehearse the piece. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Smith began at Mason with the unlikely major of engineering, and says the subject profoundly influenced his art. An engineer’s mind, he explains, is definitely at work in his choreography, making it “very spatial, very structured. It’s specific in its direction and almost mathematical.”

It was this desire for a broad range of knowledge that first drew Smith to Mason, rather than to a dance conservatory.

“I wanted the whole experience,” he says, “the academics, philosophy, astronomy. At a university, you can expand your mind and it influences your art. Here in the Dance Department, we studied comp, rhythmic analysis, music, choreography—all the different courses. And they were taught by different people every semester, so you got opinions and viewpoints that rounded out your outlook.”

Smith is in good company among those seeking the exceptional instruction Mason offers. In fact, Price says, the School of Dance has seen a steady increase over the years in the numbers and abilities of its applicants, due in large part to Mason’s growing reputation for excellence.

“We’re at a very accomplished and prestigious level at this point,” Price says. “Generally we accept about 20 to 30 percent of the people who audition, and of that we anticipate that half will accept us. Because they’re also auditioning for other prestigious programs—NYU-Tisch, SUNY Purchase, Julliard—very well-known and wonderful schools. So to be in that same pool is quite thrilling.”

Smith can spend only a week creating his work and practicing with the dancers at Mason before returning to New York. This season, he will focus on a domestic tour, including a stint back at Mason with Mark Morris on February 8 and 9.

It’s a heavy schedule, especially since he’s just returned from a two-week performance in Spain. But travel is one of the things he enjoys most about his career and what prompted him to switch majors in the first place.

“I was able to go on tour to China with the Dance Department here,” he says. “The experience of another culture and knowing I could make a career out of this—traveling and sharing myself with other people of the world and learning about them—that was my epiphany. I knew instantly that was what I wanted to do.”

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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