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ISSUE 117 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/23/2004

Dancing for his life

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 23, 2004

When Dance Professor Anthony Roberts' brother Tom asked his doctor how long it would be before he could swing a golf club again, the doctor told him it could be a year. Less than six weeks later, Tom died of cancer.

Three years later, that conversation inspired the title of Robert's multimedia dance theater piece "Swing a Club," performed April 16-17 in Dittmann Center.

Greeting a full audience both nights, Roberts said in his opening, "I won't say 'enjoy the show,' but I hope you find some point of entry into the work."

The piece began with a projection of black-and-white slides, mostly of children. Slides were used throughout the rest of the performance, many portraying recent pictures of Tom, whose smile resembles Roberts. Lines of text, handwritten and typed, were also used to emphasize what Roberts was saying about his own and his brother's struggle.

The sound score, produced by Roberts, remained synthetic and rhythmic throughout the performances. It varied in intensity but often resembled a heartbeat and was refreshingly unsentimental.

Merging voices also provided atmosphere, defining cancer and at one point devolving into a simple alphabetical list of single words.

One of the most powerful moments of the performance came halfway into the piece, when Roberts performed a bare-chested solo dance inspired by the frustration he felt at his brother's denial of his illness. His recorded voice filled the room as segments of his speech splayed on the floor, detailing Tom's aforementioned conversation with the doctor. In the silence following the speech, Roberts lay prone on the floor, lungs heaving, as the text moved backwards over his body, the floor and the silent audience.

Roberts danced with members of the St. Olaf staff and Companydance students, including Dance Professor Heather Klopchin and Artist in Residence Dona Freeman. Roberts and Klopchin performed a moving duet which portrayed elements of support, while Freeman collaborated with Robert on the text.

All other dances were performed by students: Carolyn Albert '05, Eliza Larson '05, Jennifer Nuelk '06, Emily Shulte '07, Sheila May Slowinski '05, Emily Weninger '05 and Mary Clare Zabinski '04. The student dancers worked with Roberts in developing their dances.

Roberts also collaborated with the community, so related events ran concurrently with the project. The main foyer of Dittmann Center featured the beginning watercolor class interpretations of cancer, and volunteers from the St. Olaf Cancer Connection manned tables in the lobby to accept donations and offer luminarias for purchase in honor or in memory of an individual.

Even more ambitiously, Roberts worked with Dean of Community Life and Diversity Eida Berrio and the Office of Community Life and Diversity to produce a video documentary of the ways people on campus have been touched by cancer. The personal experiences of 27 members of the St. Olaf community, including stories from Dean of Students Greg Kneser and English Professor Jonathan Hill, are on three iMacs in the Dittmann foyer.

After the performances, Roberts invited the dancers and audience to stay if they wished to share their reactions to the piece or personal experiences with cancer. Roberts hoped to expand the piece to make it accessible, explaining that "dancers often shoot themselves in the foot by making things too abstract."

Audience members thanked Roberts for the images and experience, though Roberts said that, "selfishly, this was a healing process for me." He explained that although he has to relive his brother's death with every performance, "every time, my fury, my frustration, my despair and sadness & become diminished."

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