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Fathers, daughters and empathy: ASU dance students showcase work at Emerging Artists

ASU Emerging Artists 2018

Created by ASU dance student Michelle Marji, "Father" will premiere at the ASU School of FIlm, Dance and Theatre's Emerging Artists production. Photo by Justin Villalobos

November 14, 2017

Michelle Marji isn’t throwing her father a party on his birthday this Friday. Instead, she’s premiering a new dance work at the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre’s Emerging Artists production — a dance piece that is all about her father.

“I interviewed him last summer because I wanted to learn more about my culture and history,” said Marji, a senior dance student at Arizona State University. “I became so inspired by his stories that they became my senior dance project.”

Marji says “Father” is a series of true stories involving celebration, love, humor, abandonment, death and internal turmoil. One piece explores her father’s time at an orphanage after his mother's death. Another explores his “exuberant morning routine.” The work comes to life thanks to a cast of 17 dancers. It includes contemporary and urban movement styles, Arabic social dance and gestural work inspired by Marji’s father. The show also includes an immersive intermission piece, audience interaction and narration.

Marji says the work is meant to touch hearts and minds, and she hopes people feel as involved in her father’s stories as they would their own.

“I want to create a sense of connection between the audience and the stories on stage,” Marji said. “I was interested in my father's story because I am interested in all of our complicated stories as humans. I hope the audience will know just how important their stories are as well.”

Rebecca Witt also hopes audiences will find a connection to the piece she is premiering at Emerging Artists.

“I hope they will feel welcomed into the community that has been created with my dancers and [me] over the last seven months,” said Witt, a third-year MFA in dance candidate. “I hope people will connect to the ideas being shared and be able to experience it alongside the performers.”

The piece, called “shiFT,” is a contemporary piece that was created in a collaborative nature between Witt and 10 dancers.

“The dancers all had a hand in the form the piece took and offered movement material created from group exercises that I then structured in to a group piece,” Witt said.

Witt created the work as a way to kinesthetically study empathy.

Last year Witt began researching crowd mentality and “the unique circumstances that allowed for people to resist the urge to flee from something dangerous alongside a large group, and instead run towards the danger with the intent to help other people.” That research led to a duet with Felix Cruz, a recent ASU graduate. Witt continued to investigate different forms and productions of empathy, including the neurological function of empathy. 

“I began rehearsals for my thesis piece with the intent to continue studying functioning empathy but focus on the effect a lack of empathy has on personal relationships as well as on larger communities,” she said. “The focus of the piece changed as I discovered, along with my dancers, that being empathetic is not as simple or as innate as we had thought. The piece then changed to allow for us to explore what stands in empathy’s way and what we can do ourselves to recapture true empathy.”

Witt’s work also includes a pre-show installation showcasing a dance film she and her dancers created that was inspired by the form of empathy inside the brain and how it changes based on our experiences with other people.  

Witt says she hopes people connect with the ideas she presents through dance, but she also hopes they just enjoy the art of dance.

“One of the things that I love about dance performance is being able to learn or experience something new while also being able to learn more about the body and the capabilities we hold within all our bodies to create art.”

Emerging Artists

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17–18; 2 p.m. Nov. 19

Where: Margaret Gisolo Dance Studio, Physical Education Building East, ASU's Tempe campus.

Admission: $16 for general admission; $12 for ASU faculty, staff and alumni; $12 for seniors; $8 for students. Purchase tickets online or call the Herberger Institute Box Office at 480-965-6447.

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