In Washington Contemporary Ballet’s University Place dance studio, a petite, blonde dancer circles the room with wide running steps, her face anguished. As she leaps then crouches, développés then hunches with clenched fists, the other dancers in the company look on silently.
But as they watch Brittany Humphrey rehearse the opening of “Collage,” they’re not thinking of the piece or the company show it will be in. They’re thinking of WCB founder Kay Englert, who choreographed the work as she was dying of cancer.
The spring show is a memorial to Englert.
“One of Kay’s alumni was here over Christmas filling in during ‘The Nutcracker,’” WCB director Ken Kaiser said. “I realized that the last three students who’d learned under Kay were graduating this year and I thought, ‘What can we do?’ ”
Kaiser immediately thought of “Collage.” Originally created in 1991 by Englert for a friend with AIDS, she reworked it after she received her cancer diagnosis.
It is a highly expressive six-movement work that ranges from the desperate anger of the opening to a flouncy-skirted solo, a manic Charleston, an homage to friendship, a dramatic tango and a joyful calypso.
The music ranges from opera to Janis Joplin to Harry Belafonte, some of which will be live in next week’s show. The company danced it often during Englert’s last years, and three times since her death in 2005.
Kaiser contacted WCB alumni to gauge interest in another performance, and 10 offered to come back and dance: six still in the Puget Sound region and four from around the country.
For Humphries, who learned the work under Englert and danced it at her memorial, it’s a hard piece to dance because of the memories it brings back.
“I hadn’t thought about it in a while,” said Humphries, now 25 and a kindergarten teacher, who studied dance for 11 years under Englert. “It’s going to be really hard.”
Englert was a dancer in the Pacific Ballet in San Francisco before she came to Tacoma. After working with Ballet Tacoma for eight years, she founded what was to become Washington Contemporary Ballet in 1987.
Her goal was to teach students all forms of dance. An award-winning choreographer, she aimed at the highest level for both herself and her students.
“Miss Kay was stern, but lovable,” recalls Brittany Casey, an Englert alum of nine years. “She worked us really hard.”
“She was all about discipline,” said Nikki Carsen, who studied with Englert for seven years. “She instilled a work ethic in us that’s stayed with me today. I would always want to do my best whatever I did, whether dance or theater or academics, and I give that to her.”
Among the last of Englert’s students still at WCB is Breanna Smelt, who was 11 when Englert died. She’ll dance in the “Friends” movement as well as the title role in “The Firebird,” another Englert-choreographed piece on the program, although assistant director Brittany Link has made some alterations. The program also includes two works by Link.
“Miss Kay gave us self-discipline and self-esteem,” Smelt said. “Even if you didn’t have a dancer’s body, you could still work hard.”
But to dance the piece, with all its associated memories, is emotionally challenging. “I’ll be breaking down for sure,” Smelt said.
Despite the anguish of the opening movement and the backstory, “Collage” ends on a happy, energetic note – Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora),” with frilly skirts and all the jumping and hip-wiggling of a Caribbean calypso.
“That’s my favorite movement,” Humphries said. “It’s so high-energy and fun, you can really let go. Miss Kay said the audience remembers the beginning and the end of a dance. (‘Collage’) opens with a hit-you-hard feel, but ... I don’t think she’d have wanted to leave people like that.”
What: Washington Contemporary Ballet presents its spring repertory program that includes “The Firebird” and a tribute to its founder, Kay Englert.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 20 and 21
Where: Mount Tahoma High School Auditorium, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma
Information: 253-474-4312, wcbdance.orgRosemary Ponnekanti email@example.com 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts