Lansing Symphony and Happendance 'Connect'

By James Sanford
Guest choreographer Bill DeYoung guides the five-member Happendance company through his piece set to Aaron Copland's Movement for String Quartet. James Sanford/City Pulse

’It’s a dream come true,’ says Happendance director Missy Lilje

One thing you don’t hear much of in a Happendance rehearsal is music. There’s the voice of the choreographer, offering pointers and encouragement to the dancers, and there’s quite a lot of heavy breathing from the performers as they run through complicated, body-twisting numbers again and again.

But the actual soundtrack only shows up when the piece is ready to be performed all the way through.

Fittingly, "Connect," Happendance’s first collaboration with the Lansing Symphony, will reflect both the power of music and the beauty of silence.

While most of the pieces in the concert will be accompanied by the LSO musicians, "Connect" also includes several vignettes that company members Andrew Amos, Patty Villanueva, Tracy Holtzer, Matt Bebermeyer and Missy Lilje will perform with no music at all.

Lilje and Bebermeyer co-directed "Connect," which also marks Happendance’s 35th anniversary. "Connect" includes pieces by guest choreographers Bill DeYoung of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, and Cristina Perera of Cirque du Soleil. Lilje said collaboration is the key to this first joint venture with the LSO.

"I think we always thought it would be great to hire on musicians to play for us, but that’s not what this is," Lilje said. "This is our concert, but it’s also part of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s Chamber Series. So we both had to bend a little bit. But it’s a dream come true."

The musical accompaniment includes Samuel Barber’s "Adagio for Strings," J.S. Bach’s "Suite for Cello #1" and Coldplay’s "Viva La Vida," arranged for strings. Violinists Carlotta Amargos-Rubio and Yoonah Na, violist Johnathan McNurlen, cellist Carrie Pierce and pianist A Ram Lee are some of the featured musicians.

Most of the "Connect" pieces were performed at a sneak-preview concert at the company’s Okemos studios in early December. Bebermeyer said the feedback from the audience that evening was "really crucial" in the development process.

"The overall feeling was that we needed to develop it so that it wasn’t as heavy," he said. "So we found places we could lighten it up."

There’s a considerable amount of drama and passion in several of the "Connect" pieces. Perera’s "Thoughts of Love and Loss" has Bebermeyer and Holtzer playing out a turbulent love story to the strains of Arvo Part’s "Fratres," while DeYoung’s creation includes many dynamic movements and a lyrical section in which Amos and Holtzer’s bodies seem to merge into a single form before slowly, elegantly separating.

Lilje said the opportunity to work with the LSO came about when she was visiting the office of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing in Old Town last year.

"Leslie Donaldson (the Arts Council’s executive director) said, ’Here’s (LSO executive director) Courtney Millbrook’s phone number — you should connect."

Lilje and Millbrook met for coffee, a DVD of some of Happendance’s work was sent over to the LSO offices, and "they got on board right away," Lilje said.