CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Krystal Collins’ senior dance thesis was inspired by games of double dutch, summer parties and family get-togethers – the things she and her friends remember from their childhoods.
Collins, a Shorewood native who graduated this spring from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in dance, choreographed “where we’re going” as her senior thesis. It was chosen as one of 30 works from around the country to be performed at the American College Dance Association’s National College Dance Festival in Washington, D.C., in early June.
“This piece really homes in on black girlhood and celebration and joy, and our experiences as young black girls, and turning these movements and gestures into choreography,” Collins said.
Creating the dance was a collaborative process between her and the dancers, she said.
“We talked a lot about playing double dutch. We talked about the visceral movements and choreography people make and don’t even know they’re making, especially when playing double dutch, because it’s such a rhythmic game,” Collins said. “We talked about social events, family parties, summer barbecues and cookouts. We were thinking about the many line dances that happened.”
She broke down the movements from double dutch and line dances, took a small piece of that movement and thought about how to “blow it up on a stage. We would take movements from things we saw and warp them or make them go backwards or turn it upside down.”
The work was first performed at November Dance, one of the dance department’s annual concerts at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and then at the regional conference for the American College Dance Association, hosted at the U. of I. in March.
Collins’ piece was one of two chosen from 44 dances at the regional conference to be performed at the organization’s National College Dance Festival, along with the top dances from the other 12 regional conferences.
“It was really surreal. It was a really big moment,” Collins said of being chosen for the national dance festival. “It was heartwarming and validating to hear the judges, and really refreshing that they understood the underpinning of what I was doing and it wasn’t lost on them. I’m really proud of the progress of this piece.”
Dance professor Kemal Nance worked with Collins as she prepared her work for the regional and national dance conferences.
“I became her eyes,” said Nance, who described himself as Collins’ assistant. Collins didn’t originally dance in the piece she choreographed, but she performed in it at the conferences. Nance watched the rehearsals, then talked with Collins about what he was seeing and whether it represented what she wanted the audience to experience.
“It really is about young black women on a street corner in a pastime. When you take something done as pastime and done for fun and move it from that venue to the concert stage, it necessarily has to change,” Nance said. “I was helping Krystal and her cast members make that shift, so it still had the depth and beauty of where it originated and it made the transition to the proscenium stage.
“It's slice of life for anyone who has spent any time around prepubescent and adolescent African-American girls. She was really skillful in taking that lived experience and putting it on stage,” Nance said. “She was really intentionally speaking to a very specific population and celebrating the aesthetic and rhythms that make our culture what it is, with joy and passion.”
Most of the work is performed without music. The voices of the dancers, the movements of their bodies and their breath provides the rhythm. The piece ends with movement set to house music, which was the soundtrack to Collins’ experience growing up in the Chicago area.
“I’m really fascinated by memory, by what we hold on to and what really burns in our brain and sticks, especially kinesthetically. As a dancer, I’m really interested in movements and gestures that we hold onto. I find those things really precious, and I love to explore those things,” she said.
It is also important to Collins to use art to make a political statement. She was founder and president of a student organization at the U. of I. called Fine and Applied Arts Black, which brought black students in the College of Fine and Applied Arts together to get to know one another and each other’s art forms and serve as inspirations to young black artists.
Collins was inspired by a class she took in which FAA majors would go to the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center and teach art classes.
“I really was inspired by the way art has the opportunity to change a person’s mood or change a person’s worldview,” she said.
“I find myself making art about the black experience that shows many parts of the black experience and, especially with this piece, really focuses on the joy. I think a lot of times that gets misplaced,” Collins said. “The joys and happiness and all the idiosyncrasies get overshadowed by stories of dread and sadness.”