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Dancers may embody social justice and serve

Suzanne Ostersmith is surrounded by students Alaina Margo, Maria Smith, Ryan Hayes and Brooke Geffrey-Bowler.

Suzanne Ostersmith, a tenured professor and director of dance for 21 years at Gonzaga University, is one of the local artists sharing her talents and those of her dance students with national and international artists to bring opera to the region through Inland Northwest Opera (INO) and integrate students into a professional opera.

Twenty-one years ago, Opera Plus! started in Coeur d'Alene. It became Opera Coeur d'Alene in 2009, when it expanded its season to include a production in Spokane in 2016. In 2018, it became Inland Northwest Opera.

Suzanne created a dance major and minor, started a minor in interdisciplinary arts of theatre, dance and visual arts, and helped develop the Myrtle Woldson Performing Center that opened in 2019 on the Gonzaga campus.

Recently Northwest Opera hired her to do choreography for four Gonzaga students who joined the Oct. 29 and 31 production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" at the Fox Theatre.

"INO hires artists from around the world, bringing artists from the Seattle Opera, Lincoln Center, The Metropolitan Opera, and Washington National Opera to work with local artists, like Suzanne, to put together the best productions we can. We have a wealth of incredible artists in Spokane and are happy to give people a chance to work with world-renowned artists," said Melody Heaton Chang, director of marketing at INO.

"It gives college students a chance to work in a professional production with three weeks of rehearsals together after rehearsing on their own," Suzanne said.

The students—Ryan Hayes, a senior dance major and interdisciplinary arts minor; Brooke Geffrey-Bowler, a senior dance major; Alaina Margo, junior dance and biology double major, and Maria Scott, a freshman dance and psychology double major—rehearsed in advance using phones and recordings.

They were joined by the Seattle company of 18 with three leads and eight in the chorus, and a live orchestra.

INO had vaccinated performers mask at in-person rehearsals because singers and instrumentalists release aerosols, Suzanne said, but they perform with no masks, after testing twice a week. 

"It has been a challenge for dance programs to produce concerts, but Gonzaga produced five last year. The audience were dance students," she said, noting that all performing arts students are vaccinated, and there is a high rate of vaccination and everyone masks at Gonzaga. For all their concerts, performers were fully masked.

Of 200 students taking dance classes each semester, 40 are majors or minors.

Involving students in professional performances is empowering, she said.

"For Orpheus and Eurydice, we worked with opera, singers, dancers and performers," said Suzanne, who did choreography for students' rehearsals. When they rehearsed with the full team, they followed the direction of the opera's director, Dan Miller.

Before 1998, Suzanne had worked with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. She thought when she moved to Spokane that she would focus on raising her two sons, but in 2000, she started as an adjunct with the dance programs at Whitworth and Gonzaga universities, developing minors and directing two productions each year.

Both programs grew beyond what she could manage, so she left Whitworth to focus at Gonzaga, developing the interdisciplinary arts and dance majors, and the performing arts center.

"Everyone has a different reason to dance. For me, it's a way I connect with myself and others," Suzanne said. "There's power in a community of dancers together. As a professor and teacher, I seek to communicate what we can do for others, and to teach students about dance in history as social protest and in community building."

Some in the program danced when they were young, and some have never danced before. Some students have double majors in English or STEM areas like physics, biology or psychology.

"Dance is a way to connect with and use one's body to communicate," she said.

"We balance knowledge of science, politics and dance," she said. "The more we dance, the more we make the world a better place, because dance makes people vulnerable and brings people together rather than dividing them. Dance is a way to serve."

In 2020, Gonzaga hosted a regional conference of the American College Dance Association on, "Dance and Service."

"Dance as service is about serving one's psychological as well as physical wellbeing. Dance therapy is about what goes on in people's hearts and minds," Suzanne said.

Some students help with Dance for Parkinson's, helping people with Parkinson's understand their bodies in ways beyond their aging or disease.

Some students help lead a free after-school dance program.

Dance is more than performance. It involves light board operators, stage managers, sound board operators, so dancers learn those skills and how they make dance happen.

"Beyond dance as moving the body, it is both a form of art and form of protest," she said.

Suzanne teaches dance as reflecting culture through forms, from ballroom to rhumba, which was developed in Cuba as a way to connect lower-class, poor disenfranchised people as a means of protest.

"Dance throughout history is a political statement," she said.

On Saturday, Nov. 20, Spectrum Dance Theatre, a professional company directed by Donald Byrd from Seattle, presents a performance exploring social justice issues, including dance empowering people to work for racial and environmental justice. 

It takes complex problems and explores them through dance and a sequence of movements.

"I was raised Presbyterian, work at a Catholic university and hold strong humanitarian beliefs, nurtured by feeling spiritually connected to others through the arts in line with Jesuit ideals that involve taking risks," she said.

In a YouTube video, "What I Have Learned,"Suzanne points out that tools in a dance studio invite risk taking. Support barres are held lightly and let go when the dancer is ready, Mirrors help dancers reflect on their technique, artistry and journey.

"At Gonzaga, we talk of engaging the whole person, mind, body and spirit," she said.

Suzanne said when people are dancing they are "curia personales," taking care of themselves physically and challenging the "physical instrument" they have been given to tell stories and challenge their bodies to go to the next level—"magis," the Jesuit way of saying more.

Dance students have to trust and commit. As in life, they cannot be afraid to fail. When dancers push themselves, they may fall, but find themselves celebrated by their peers, who recognize that "creating takes risk and learning from the risks" in a supportive setting that teaches them "to be bold—bold in arts and in life," she said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November, 2021