What: 16th annual Choreographers' Showcase, a display of works by regional choreographers, featuring the Lawrence debut of Susan Rieger's "Tomorrow, Greener Grass" by the 940 dance company
When: 7:30 p.m. today
Where: Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.
Tickets: Adults, $13.50; students/ seniors, $7
Ticket info: 843-2787
¢ An Informal Showcase will be at 4:30 p.m.; donations are appreciated.
Susan Rieger watches intently as six dancers move slowly across the studio floor, winding around and rolling over one another in a series of carefully choreographed lifts and passes.
She consults her notes, stops the dancers and turns off the Tin Hat Trio tune that's been accompanying their movements.
"Here's something I'd like to try," Rieger says, reworking a detail. She asks the dancers to repeat the sequence.
"I think this will be the last time today," she says. "But you know how I lie about that."
The dancers laugh. They're in good spirits, just four days before their first performance in Lawrence.
This is the 940 dance company, reinvented with Rieger as its artistic director. Five of the six dancers are new to the group, with veteran Whitney Boomer returning.
They've been rehearsing since September, breaking twice to perform educational tours in Texas and Manhattan.
"We have been together not even two-and-a-half months, and already there's a really nice chemistry," Rieger says.
That harmony will be on exhibit today when the company performs the Lawrence premiere of Rieger's "Tomorrow, Greener Grass" during the 16th annual Choreographers' Showcase. The sextet explores the feelings invoked by immigrating to a new place - the arduous journey, the joyful arrival, the hopeful gaze toward the future.
Rieger can relate. She moved to Lawrence from Kansas City this summer after leading aha! dance theatre for 14 years. It's been a positive transition, marked by fewer administrative duties and more time to create.
"I was so excited to hear the position was open because it's very rare that artistic director positions open up, and especially so close," Rieger says.
"I think the arts center is such a good place because sometimes modern dance connects with people who are interested in other art forms. ... Being at a place that has different disciplines is a really great home for modern dance."
'Something fresh and new'
Rieger herself didn't feel at home in dance until she discovered modern.
She was 22 and no stranger to the art form, having taken ballet and tap lessons since she was an 8-year-old in Lorain, Ohio. She enrolled in a modern dance class taught by Susan Warden at Kansas State University.
"Then I was awestruck by the possibilities of dance," Rieger recalls. "Where ballet and jazz sort of represented a small portion of the dance world with kind of a limited vocabulary, it felt like modern opened up possibilities rather than defined them."
(Incidentally, Warden later would start her own Kansas City troupe and then leave to direct the 940 dance company. She stepped down in May.)
After getting a master's degree in social work from Kansas University (preceded by a bachelor's in dance from the University of Iowa), Rieger helped found aha! in 1993. During her time there, she was recognized by Mid-America Dance Network and favorably reviewed in Dance magazine. She was awarded the Kennedy Center Award of Achievement in Choreography in 2004.
"She's just willing to kind of go out to the edge of something that she explores," says Candi Baker, director of dance at the arts center and founder of the Prairie Wind Dancers, which became 940 dance company in 2005. "She strives for something fresh and new in her work."
Chris Dunn admired Rieger enough to follow her to Lawrence. He took a modern dance technique class from her at City in Motion School of Dance in Kansas City, Mo., and had been working with her at aha! before taking a job with 940.
"I enjoy Susan's artistry and her willingness to experiment, break boundaries," he says. "She has a playful sense of humor and a depth of experience and expertise."
Dunn says the company is gelling nicely.
"That's going to be important in any sort of group endeavor," he says. "But it's so critical when we have to trust each other with our physical safety."
Whitney Boomer, who is in her fourth season with 940, says it's been exciting to work with new dancers and a new artistic director. She thinks "Tomorrow, Greener Grass," the piece the troupe will perform Saturday, will be an appropriate introduction of the company to Lawrence audiences.
"It's got a good message and good emotional content," she says. "There's a lot of movement, so it's going to take you for a ride."