New moves for an old city

By Yana Levovna
Members of Happendance Professional Dance Co. rehearse

Happendance celebrates Lansing’s 150th

"I think Lansing is the best place to be right now," exclaims Happendance instructor and choreographer Missy Bischoff Lilje. Looking at the miserable wretches trudging around in the 5-inchdeep snow, one is tempted to disagree and possibly question her sanity, but she presses on: "Lansing is not the most cultural city, but it’s certainly not the worst. Even in the midst of all this economic crisis, there is still theater, music and dance everywhere you look."

Happendance is surviving tough economic times with the help of grants, student enrollment and generous donors. "If people care about you and really believe in the work that you do, they can and will support you," Lilje said.

It’s hard not to care about Lilje, as she launches into a lengthy discussion on the artistic and administrative sides of dance. She knows the local scene well, having graduated from Haslett High School and studied at Happendance, where she also served as a teaching assistant for five years. After earning her bachelor’s in dance from University of Michigan and a master’s in dance from Arizona State University, she returned to Lansing, where she serves as artistic director for Happendance Professional Co., producing all of the group’s concerts and outreach performances.

Happendance aims to stimulate support for dance through performances and educational programs and to broaden the accessibility of modern dance to the community. Part of reaching a diverse community means making the art relevant to the public’s environment. For this year’s winter concert, Happendance will help celebrate Lansing’s sesquicentennial this weekend with the program “Dynamic! Lansing at 150.”

The concert opens with “Lansing Welcomes You,” a solo created and performed by Amanda Tollstam.

Building on the themes of life in Lansing from last year’s concert, "Rise: The Up Side of Down," Lilje’s dance expertise is evident in the hopeful duet, “Paper Boy,” in which an optimistic girl conjures a dance partner from waste paper, offering a light-hearted, welcome relief from the constant barrage of bad weather and worse news.

A piece that may resonate with the multitude of college students in the area is “Me and My $100,000 Bachelor Degree,” in which dancers one-up each other while vying for the attention of invisible, prospective employers. The action escalates, until the dancers finally lament the painful truth: ‘I’m still in debt,’ ’I live in my parents’ basement,’ ‘I took out a loan to buy this vest.’

With news of a slumping economy nearly everywhere you turn, dances with titles like “Fear Uncertainty Foreclosure” and “Unemployment,” a full-company piece that rises from the darker side of Lansing to find a way forward, are very relevant. "I see my friends lose their jobs, their homes foreclose and it feels neverending,” Lilje said. “However, the best part of being at rock bottom is that there is only one way to go."

And with that mantra, she can celebrate our city with “Celebrate our City,” a piece Lilje said draws on the particular strengths of this year’s full cast.

Guest artists Nate Crawford and Jennifer Bricker will partner in an aerial duet with the working-titled piece “Unbounded Love.” Crawford, who performed in "A Village Moving," Happendance’s 30th Anniversary Concert, has toured the world with his acrobatic stunt and dance skills. A gymnast in college, he has trained extensively with Cirque du Soleil artists and now works for Disney and Anti-Gravity.

Bricker, who was born without legs, most recently performed with the Heidi Latsky Dance, a critically acclaimed, modern dance company based in New York. Her career is proof that one can be a successful acrobat, aerialist and dancer even with a disability.

During a phone interview, Bricker said modern dance has come a long way to meet the audience. "In the past, many modern dance artists created without regard to the general public,” she said. “So going into something like that you might feel like you don’t get it. However, the new generation of modern dancer, Happendance included, really has sensitivity to making dance accessible and yet full of artistic integrity, relevance and fun.”

Following Saturday’s performance, Happendance will host an afterglow reception in the Atrium of the State Bar of Michigan located at 306 Townsend St., one block south of the Capitol. Ticket to the afterglow includes desserts, cheese and fruit, wine, tea and coffee and conversation with Happendance artists and supporters. Advance tickets are $30 per person, $55 per couple. Tickets are the door are $35 per person, $60 per couple.

‘Dynamic! Lansing at 150’

Happendance 8 p.m. Jan. 16 & 17 Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing $15/$12 (518) 333-3528