Leah Glenn Dance Theatre headed to Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Light faded to darkness through the windows of Adair Hall's dance studio as members of Leah Glenn Dance Theatre rehearsed and Leah Glenn watched.

She watched intently from her perch on a metal chair, head bobbing and body swaying ever so slightly, tracing the dancers' movements. Almost as if transferring her own movement to each dancer through some unspoken bond.

"Dance is the hidden language of the soul," read the back of Glenn's T-shirt. Likely a random choice of wardrobe, but fitting nonetheless.

Dance is the language Glenn knows best, the language she voices loudest. And, through dance, she gives voice to others.

"I enjoy creating dances that … are inspired by people who don't necessarily have a voice in society," Glenn said.

She exudes a warm, easygoing nature, but Glenn doesn't shy away from complex topics. Her repertoire includes pieces about autism, post traumatic stress disorder and human trafficking.

"I think art in general allows us to communicate and put difficult conversations on the table in a very non-threatening way," she said. "And that's, I think, a big reason why I do what I do."

An associate professor of dance at the College of William and Mary, where she started in 2006, Glenn is artistic director of Leah Glenn Dance Theatre, a company she founded as an outlet for further expression and a venue for collaboration between students, alumni and professionals.

Now in its fourth season, the company will present eight of Glenn's works on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage later this month.

'Hush'

"Her work is very honest. It's very beautiful," said Sabrina Madison-Cannon, Glenn's longtime friend and an associate professor of dance at University of Missouri-Kansas City.

While Glenn pursued her Master of Fine Arts at Southern Methodist University, Madison-Cannon, a faculty member at the time, served as mentor for Glenn's thesis.

"(Her work is) crafted from a place of clear intent and purpose," Madison-Cannon said. "And it always has been."

Often, Glenn's work pulls from a very personal place. Perhaps none more so than "Hush," a piece that grew from Glenn's relationship with her son Xavier, 21, who has been diagnosed with autism.

One evening, when Xavier was much younger, he woke up in the middle of the night crying.

"I was trying to figure out what was wrong, and it just escalated from there," Glenn said. "I didn't know how to help him."

The incident inspired "Hush," which Glenn originally choreographed as part of her graduate thesis. But the piece endures, having grown alongside Xavier, Glenn said.

Through movement, "Hush" conveys some of the difficulties autism creates in communication, in daily life. You see the dancers hold their ears, for example, representing a reaction to the constant sensory overload many diagnosed with autism often face.

Two dancers portray a parent and a child. Other dancers in the piece represent community members who Glenn said contributed to Xavier's quality of life; whether doctors, teachers, family or friends.

Glenn hopes, through "Hush," to promote deeper awareness of autism, of living with the diagnosis. "So that there is a greater understanding and differentiation between inappropriate or what would normally be considered bad behavior, and an attempt to just deal with your environment," she said.

Hailey Arindaeng, 19, portrays a community member in "Hush." A sophomore at William and Mary, she joined Leah Glenn Dance Theatre last summer.

"Even though I haven't met Xavier, I think dance just in general is a really amazing way to learn about something that you're not familiar with," Arindaeng said. "To understand it more in a way where you can never step into his mind or experience what Leah experiences on a daily basis, but through movement, we get a glimpse into their world."

And movement offers a glimpse more visceral, more real, than words ever could.

Dance conveys the level of experience, Glenn said: "The level of frustration, difficulty and, I think, pain that you go through in dealing with the challenges, as well as the joys that come along with challenges of living with autism."

Members of the company performed "Hush" recently at a William and Mary Symposium on Medicine, Arts and Social Justice. During a question-and-answer session following the performance, an audience member raised her hand.

"She said, 'I have a sister with autism,' and she was so appreciative of the piece, because there are so many experiences that you just cannot put into words," Glenn said.

"And that, right there … if I can not only educate others and promote awareness, but remind people who are dealing with the same situation that they're not alone," she said, "then I've done my job."

Incredible opportunity

On May 28, Leah Glenn Dance Theatre will perform "Hush" on the Millennium Stage, along with seven other pieces.

"It's an incredible opportunity for all of us," Glenn said. "You never know who's going to be walking around."

In past seasons, the company has mostly performed locally at Kimball Theatre. Other appearances include the American College Dance Festival and the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference.

The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage presents free performances every day, 365 days a year, with a mission of making performing arts accessible for everyone, said Jane Rabinovitz, coordinator of dance programming at the Kennedy Center and an alumna of William and Mary.

"It also provides a platform within the Kennedy Center . . . gives local folks a chance to perform as well," Rabinovitz said. She said dance performances presented by the Millennium Stage are almost always local and regional choreographers and companies. Glenn said she applied for a spot on the stage.

Jamal Story and Parisa Khobdeh will join six William and Mary students and four alumni for the performance. Khobdeh is a soloist with Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, and Story has danced and choreographed professionally around the world, from Broadway stages to Madonna and Cher concert tours.

"I think there's something really rich that comes out of that kind of collaboration," Glenn said of uniting dancers from a range of experiences.

The performance features works like "Don't Tell Me It's Raining," Glenn's ode to her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and "Letting Go," a piece capturing Glenn's relief at earning tenure. The program also explores a couple's experience with PTSD in "Perceived Threat" and the issue of human trafficking in "Invisible."

"I'm just trying to reach people," Glenn said. "And hope that I can give them opportunity to think about the world in a different way."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Leah Glenn Dance Theatre

When: 6 p.m., May 28

Where: Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.

Free and open to the public. Watch a live stream of the performance at kennedy-center.org.

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