Room to move

UNR dance students use campus locales for innovative performance

Sarah Johnson, Hanna Walkinshaw, Sydney Tello, and Cianna Gransberry in the dance “Flicker Into A Flame” choreographed by Laura Ryerson. Photo-Caitlin Bell

On one beautiful day in late October, students walking on the University of Nevada, Reno campus may have found themselves gaping at dancers scaling a fire escape, maneuvering a flight of stairs and circling a tree.

Fortunately, for those who missed this day of live performance art, the acts were captured on video as part of the Department of Theatre & Dance’s Fall Dance Festival, its annual showcase of original student choreography. Demonstrating their commitment to keep dancing despite COVID-19 restrictions, students and faculty opted to head outdoors.

Ozora Cheek and Jordan Moon in the dance “2/3” choreographed by UNR student Hanna Walkinshaw. Photo-Caitlin Bell

“In the spring, students were devastated to lose opportunities to perform and create work. … They were very invested in that process,” said Associate Professor of Dance Cari Cunningham, who coordinated the fall festival. 

The faculty came together to brainstorm ways to still mount a production that was safe. A virtual presentation made the most sense, but the department took that a step further to incorporate site-specific dances.

“The work is created specifically for the location in which it takes place—the idea is that it could not be done anywhere else,” Cunningham added. “We’ve done this type of work before and have taught this. So we solicited proposals, and we selected six student choreographers who selected sites in or around the quad.” Cunningham and fellow faculty member Nate Hodges also created works, for a total of eight individual dances.

Interestingly, Cunningham pointed to the UNR Quadrangle as an auspicious and coincidental location for our current times. Thomas Jefferson himself, being fearful over yellow fever and numerous other infectious diseases, was consumed with the idea of urban planning as a way to prevent the spread of disease. He envisioned a quadrangle, with buildings lining the perimeter of wide open green spaces, as a possible solution. 

The dances not only benefitted from the location choices, but the locales also enabled the dancers to rehearse outside. A local videographer captured footage of the finished pieces and, in documentary fashion, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the choreographers about their location choices and how they informed the work. 

The final, edited version is available for free (with online registration) this weekend.

Fabian Kaiwi and Kiera Middlebrook in the dance “Rush Hour” choreographed by Sarah Ziolkowski. Photo-Caitlin Bell

“One of the things this format allowed us to achieve was that we have had audiences the entire time we’ve been making these dances—we had passersby stopping to watch throughout the filming—but they were made when the weather was still beautiful,” Cunningham said. “So we can show the finished product at the end of November without freezing our butts off! But also, they’ve watched the dances evolve. So this is a way to see the culmination of all that, the finished product in its final, edited form.”

She explained that, regardless of the pandemic, the department has tried to create opportunities to invite in audiences who are less familiar with dance, to give insights into the process. The documentary-style nature of this show allows for that. Also, an added bonus: This is a family-friendly show, and streaming it at home is a good way to train young children to appreciate live performance and learn to be good audience members. 

“Obviously, I have a lot of feelings about why it’s important for artmaking to still happen right now,” Cunningham said. “Big-picture wise, it’s really important for us to see bodies in motion, because our relationships with our own bodies seems so tenuous these days. We can’t have our same fitness rituals. We’re worried about health and touching. … I hope this is a really uplifting way to look at the body that maybe takes us out of our own closed-off spaces for a moment, so we can connect in ways we aren’t getting right now.”


UNR’s Department of Theatre and Dance presents the Fall Dance Festival, premiering Friday, Nov. 20 at 7:30 p.m. and available on demand through midnight Sunday, Nov. 22.

The event is free but requires registration.


This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.