CWU dancers perform their professor’s work at national festival

  • December 6, 2023
  • David Leder

Six members of Central Washington University’s Dance program received a special honor this fall when they were invited to perform for a national audience at the annual Detroit Dance City Festival (DDCF).

Assistant Professor Gabrielle McNeillie’s choreography work, “Inner Discord,” was selected as a featured piece for the Choreographer’s Showcase, and she accompanied the group to Michigan for the September 8-10 festival.

“Being selected for a national festival is a pretty big deal for me and for our program,” said McNeillie, the lone full-time faculty member in the CWU Dance program. “There were dancers from 14 states and three countries who were showcased, and we really enjoyed being able to perform in front of such a wide audience.”

McNeillie worked with the dancers over the spring and summer to set the movements for the performance, which took place at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She noted that the CWU dancers who attended DDCF were different than those who appeared in the demonstration video.

“It was fun for me to re-tool the piece with different dancers,” said McNeillie, adding that she told the festival organizers that the performance wouldn’t be exactly like the video. “It was nice that we were given the freedom to alter the choreography and shift some things around.”

cwu-dance-main-4.jpg

The six CWU dancers who joined McNeillie at DDCF were Emily Evans, Brenna Lindstrom, Emma Tolmich, Allison Prekeges, Aislinn Williamson, and Mason Low. McNeillie insisted that her students be listed alongside her as choreographers in the program.

“I’m more of the director,” she said. “I pull pieces out and ask the dancers to do things differently. I also ask them to read poems and come up with movements on their own. It’s a very collaborative process.”

McNeillie developed “Inner Discord” several years ago, basing it on the feminist poetry by New York Times bestselling author Kate Baer. After receiving Baer’s permission to incorporate seven of her poems into her choreography, McNeillie worked with CWU’s Theatre Arts Department to record the poems.

cwu-dance-main-3.jpg“Those are the recordings we were dancing to in Detroit,” she said.

The trip was made possible by the Lana Jo Sharpe Foundation, named after the late CWU faculty member and co-founder of the Orchesis Dance Company.

McNeillie said September’s excursion was the first time CWU dancers have been able to take advantage of the fund, which was established after Sharpe died in 2018.

“The money has to be used specifically for the Orchesis Dance Company to do choreography or to travel for choreography,” McNeillie said. “It’s fairly new to us, and we are really excited that we were able to make this opportunity happen for our students.”

Two more CWU Dance students, Hannah Townley and Emily Evans, will also receive support from the foundation in March when they present their works at the American College Dance Festival (ACDA) in Utah.

McNeillie said one of the main reasons the CWU Dance program has made a name for itself is that it provides ample opportunities for students to explore a wide variety of professional dance disciplines.

“One of the really special things about our program is that our students have a lot of opportunities to create their own choreography,” she said. “Some programs are similar, but we go through a strict process where students propose their choreography to a faculty member first. Then, the best ones are chosen to be performed at our spring show.”

The diversified curriculum and focus on individualized instruction have helped CWU’s four-year degree program continue growing since it was first established in 2018.

cwu-dance-main-2.jpgThe program currently has 20 majors, with eight incoming students already committed for 2024-25. McNeillie’s goal is to add at least 10 new dancers per year, and she continues to be encouraged by the word-of-mouth advertising occurring across the Northwest.


“Because we are so specialized, recruitment hasn’t been too difficult,” she said, noting that she hopes to connect with more prospective students at a Portland-area regional dance festival in February.

Another draw for the program will undoubtedly be the brand-new dance studio inside Nicholson Pavilion that was unveiled this fall. Paired with an expanded Pilates studio—complete with 10 reformers, 10 spine-correctors, and other equipment designed to facilitate movement—the future is looking bright for CWU Dance.

“I’m hoping we will continue to grow,” McNeillie said, adding that all of her classes are open to anyone in the CWU community, not only majors. “I want our dancers to pursue their performance dreams, but I also want our program to be known for creating really good dance educators. We make sure our students understand that if you want your choreography to be successful, you need to be able to teach it to a variety of people.”

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Dance photos courtesy of Mike Pfieffer. Group photo courtesy of Gabrielle McNeillie.

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