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Jowitt preaches appreciation for great dance with “Masterpiece”

Drexel’s Department of Performing Arts brought the program “What Makes A Masterpiece?” to Mandell Theater Oct. 4. The program featured a lecture from dance performer, critic and NYU professor Deborah Jowitt, followed by a performance of “The Farewell” by renowned performer and part-time Arcadia University professor Janet Pilla.

Dance performer and NYU professor Deborah Jowitt lead a lecture at the Drexel Department of Performing Arts program “What Makes A Masterpiece.” Jowitt discussed aspects of dance that deserve being called masterpieces. The lecture was followed by a dance performance by Janet Pilla.

Projected onto a giant screen was “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” by Caravaggio, which Jowitt uses as a visual example to begin her lecture.

“Great art stays with us,” Jowitt said, describing the haunting and solemn painting before moving on to the aspects of great dance works that deserve the accolade “masterpiece.”

In moments of both serious appreciation of dance and playful jokes with the audience, Jowitt explained that masterpieces are creations that feature many different elements, and it is how these elements come together that makes a performance truly a masterpiece. Music, lighting, costume, stage design, choreography — these all must come together to create something truly worthy of such high praise.

Jowitt used several examples of masterpiece dance in her lecture. George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” accompanied by a YouTube video of the performance, featured a young Apollo and his three muses, who would flit about him in dainty, small steps. This lighthearted scene, according to Jowitt, is a prime example of dance that incorporates poetry and music.

The next example was of “Appalachian Spring,” choreographed by Martha Graham. This, Jowitt said, is a masterpiece because it takes the plain, often boring subject of frontier life and makes it beautiful and at times even comical.

Another piece, “Lilac Garden,” is the love story of a woman, her husband and both of their lovers. The dancers’ movements are subtle and graceful.

“This is not a masterpiece because of a big, thundering ending,” Jowitt said. “This is a masterpiece because it is both exquisite and sad.”

Following the lecture was a performance of “The Farewell,” a piece with four distinct sections — earth, love, youth and life — meant to be memories for the female character, looking back on her life. Each section is preceded by poetry, projected on a screen onstage, by Pauline Koner, the choreographer and original performer. This dance is a solo work, following the memories of one character.

The props are minimal: a screen onto which the poetry is projected, a long elastic band stretching flat across the stage, and a piece of rope that curves in an arc on the floor to the left of the stage.

Janet Pilla, the dancer for this piece, appears onstage first in a long, dark red dress, very somber and serious. Her movements are at times very abrupt and at other times very flowing and graceful. She stays very close to the floor of the stage, all of which are symbolic of the “earth” portion of the piece.

The “youth” section features Pilla in a shorter, light pink gown. She smiles, as if to herself, and makes use of jumps and twirls. The section is very lighthearted and goes at a much faster pace than any of the others. She gathers one half of the rope and coils it up, signifying the end of her memories of her youth.

Next, Pilla appears onstage in bright scarlet colors, signifying the “love” portion of the dance. She moves slowly and deliberately and coils up the other half of the rope, signifying the end of her memories of love in her life. She then takes the rope and removes it from the stage.

The “life” section, or “last farewell,” features an immense struggle for the dancer. She wears all black to represent her own passing and tugs at the elastic band, weaving herself around it. The band is slowly lifted up to signify her passing and her soul elevating as Pilla slowly disappears into the shadows and leaves the stage.

In a question-and-answer segment after the performance, Pilla revealed that her main objective for the piece was to understand the inspiration behind it. In this case, it is a memorial for the choreographer’s dance instructor, Doris Humphrey. Jowitt agreed, saying the piece felt introspective because it focused on the memories one relives before death and how this is both soothing and painful.