The Times West Virginian

April 19, 2012

Theater students to see art come alive

West Virginia Dance Company takes stage today at North Marion

By Nicole Lemal
Times West Virginian

RACHEL — Art is meant to be a form of expression, a way to get people to look at life differently.

And at North Marion High School today, theater students will have an opportunity to see art come to life as the West Virginia Dance Company takes the stage. A special workshop will follow the performance.

Formerly known as the Appalachian Dance and Music Ensemble, the West Virginia Dance Company was founded in 1977 with the main purpose of educating students of the region through lectures, workshops, performances and residencies.

On average, the company sees up to 50,000 students each year, according to producing artistic director Donald Laney. In addition to educational performances, the company continues to perform to public, corporate and collegiate audiences.

During the one-hour educational show, students will have a glimpse of different parts of the world. Through science lessons, arts, literature and dance, performers will showcase creativity with the use of their imaginations.

“The idea is that we wanted to teach them and expose them to modern dances, which is the true American art form, and to show them how creativity and the use of their imagination is important to hopefully their future and their career,” Laney said. “As the careers and the opportunities are shifting, people want to hire people who actually are creative and imaginative.”

Research compiled on WVDanceco.com has shown that students who are involved in the arts are four times more likely to participate in youth groups and four times more likely to participate in community service.

Being in an arts-rich school environment can help enhance a school environment, attendance, creativity and creative thinking, verbal and mathematics skills, the school’s professional culture, and community engagement and identity. SAT scores continue to increase with the more years a student is enrolled in art classes.

Making that kind of impact must be done strategically, and that’s why the show is designed in a way that students are entertained but learn.

“All of the works are very high level pieces of choreography, and I think it’s very good for the students,” managing artistic director Toneta Akers-Toler said. “We realize that there is some content that they need to know for their education, dealing with the intellect and things to remember, but we also know that if you’re performing for students, you have to make it exciting and visually pleasing.”

Described as incredible athletes, the dancers are well trained, Toler said. All the performers work hard to put on an entertaining show that takes their audience across the continents, teaching them the similarities and differences of people all over the world. The costumes are different and exciting, as is the choreography.

“The students are getting many layers of things happening at one time,” Toler said. “The dancers actually explain a little history about the piece and the students see the work and then somebody comes out to explain, so the show never stops from beginning to end.”

Props are used and a variety of music is played to reflect the various cultures portrayed on stage.

One particular favorite has been their performance on Antarctica.

“They enjoy our little penguin dance from Antarctica,” Laney said. “We have skateboards and balls to show how the male penguins hold the egg until it hatches.”

North America is another favorite. This year the company will do a tap dance and jazz dance to demonstrate how the art forms were created and how quickly both dances spread throughout the world.

The special aspects of West Virginia history are also mixed into the performance.

“I always like to bring something in about West Virginia because I want West Virginians to feel that we have such a rich history, and so oftentimes children don’t even know about the rich history here,” Toler said.

Toler and Laney hope students benefit by the unique way of teaching, grasping more out of it than they would by studying a textbook.

“They’re pushing this whole arts integration thing because people all over the world are realizing how important the arts are — to integrate them into core subjects, that everyone doesn’t learn from a textbook and that by incorporating the arts into teaching science lessons or literature or history, they will actually connect and have a deeper learning experience.”

Email Nicole Lemal at nlemal@timeswv.com.