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Troupe unites pro and amateur dancers

MIDDLEBURY — Most dance troupes stage shows designed to exhibit the years of training their dancers have.
This weekend the Big Action Performance Ensemble seeks to throw that notion out the window in two shows at the Town Hall Theater.
The Friday and Saturday performances will feature the Big APE dance troupe’s eight professional dancers, plus 27 members of the local community, ranging in age from 8 to 74. Composer, DJ and recent Middlebury College graduate Phillipe Bronchtein provides original music for the show.
Big APE artistic director Tiffany Rhynard said the THT show, titled “Everyone Can Dance,” is a response to the reality shows that question the abilities of amateur dancers — shows like Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance” — that, she said, are fun to watch but caused her to question the definition of the word “dancer.”
“There are so many negative connotations to the question, (so you think you can dance?),” said Rhynard, an artist –in-residence at Middlebury College. “It frames the dancer in what I think is a very narrow stereotype. My reaction was, ‘Well, I think everyone can dance.’”
Rhynard said the new piece is her most ambitious since she founded the troupe three years ago. Big APE grew out of a project that she was working on at the college, but Rhynard said the focus has shifted somewhat. Right now, there is just one alumna of the college among the group’s core dancers, though all of the dancers are based in Vermont.
Unlike many dance performances, which are rehearsed for months ahead of time, “Everyone Can Dance” is a performance piece that heads to the stage within three or four weeks of entering a community (Middlebury marks the third venue where Big APE has staged this piece). During those weeks, the ensemble holds rigorous rehearsals with all of the participants, as well as classes open to the general community. In this sense, it opens the field to everyone interested in dancing.
The same theory applies to choosing the show’s participants.
“The only requirements were, one, availability and, two, a desire to perform,” Rhynard said.
By now, Rhynard and the other seven core troupe members have the whole process down pat — they began working on the show’s overall structure in August, then took it to Burlington in December and to Montpelier in January, each time with a different group of local community members pulled together with posted flyers and word of mouth.
With every version of the show the group performs in a new community it changes. The core members of the dance troupe have their designated parts, and they teach the community members some parts, but there are pieces of the show that the community members choreograph, and parts that are improvised on the spot.
“We don’t get too precious about it,” said Rhynard. “That keeps it energized.”
This time, though, the performance hits a little closer to home for Rhynard.
“Any group of people has a different feel,” she said. “This time I know a lot of the participants — they’re my neighbors — so it feels a little more intimate with the process.”
In another reversal of traditional dance performance, the group this weekend performed part of its show as a flash mob at the Winter Festival and Chili Contest in downtown Middlebury last Saturday (see photos on Page 15A). It brought in not 35 but 64 dancers to perform a square dance, which is a section of the full show.
The flash mob, said Rhynard, arose from “my desire to bring dance to the people … Usually dance happens in small, dark theaters, and the audience is people who know the dancers. It’s an insular community.”
One of the company’s professional dancers is Paula Higa of Lincoln. She said that training with novice dancers has been surprising in many ways, providing her with a fresh way to view her art and teaching her how much she has yet to learn about movement.
“It’s a kind of exchange,” she said. “It’s from the community members. They have no dance experience, but suddenly they come up with movements that are natural and gorgeous.”
Higa, originally from Brazil, moved to Vermont two years ago with her husband, who teaches Portuguese and literature at Middlebury College. Prior to moving here, she danced with performance companies in São Paulo, Brazil, and Austin, Texas.
This is Higa’s first performance with Big APE — after a five-year hiatus where she figured that she was done dancing professionally. Rhynard asked her to come back to the stage to perform with the dance troupe. After some thought, Higa said yes.
“I thought maybe it was another beginning,” she said.
And so far, said Higa, Big APE has been a good way to return to her art.
“This is my first experience performing with the community,” she said. “I love it.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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