Janell Byrne: 30 Years with MDE


You’d think that after 30 years choreographing perhaps 150 dances, Janell Byrne, director of the Mercer Dance Ensemble at Mercer County Community College, would present some of her former work at her 30th anniversary concert. But no, Byrne likes to look ahead. The themes may be similar to the past, but – as she says – she has different dancers, and it’s more fun to create new work on the current dancers than to struggle to fit them into old work.

“Over the last three or four years, more students are asking to be a part of it, and a lot of them are men. So I am using partnering and different relationships, not necessarily the relationship between men and women, but between differences in body types.”

“MDE – Legacy” will be presented Saturday, May 29 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 30 at 2 p.m. at the Kelsey Theatre on Mercer’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Tickets for MDE are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $10 for students, available at http://www.kelseytheatre.net, at the box office, or at 609-570-3333.

Byrne will also perform in a faculty studio showing at Princeton Ballet School on Sunday, May 23, at 6 p.m., at 301 North Harrison Street. On the program are works by Mary Barton, Jennifer Gladney, and Alma Concepcion. Susan Tenney will present “Je me souvien” (as seen at Rider) and Byrne will present “Elle(s)” (see below). Seating is limited (609-921-7758).

In spite of making everything new this year, Byrne admits that some themes may look familiar. A piece that uses prop ladders references an early work, “Chutes and Ladders.” “And I tend to have a piece that the novice dancer can fit well into.”

Many of the MDE dancers are professional and semi-professional dancers from the community, but some come from Mercer’s dance program, which offers jazz, ballet, and modern dance on all levels. Students can major in dance and earn associate’s degree (to transfer as juniors to a four-year college) or an AFA degree in the performing arts in which they combine conservatory training in theatre, dance and music with education in the liberal arts and sciences.

A series of three tangos share the earthy quality of that dance, but are very different. A dance for seven people is set to a Steve Roach “Sacred Space” score, originally written for the nonsectarian Mark Rothko chapel. ”There is so much in the simplicity and power of his paintings, that it inspired me to hear the music,” she says.

“Quartet for Four Women” is set to solo piano music with dancers coming and going. “We want to suggest that the dancing continues beyond the limits of the stage,” Byrne says.

Byrne, a native of California, is a former student of Stanley Holden and Margaret Hills in Los Angeles. A graduate of the Juilliard School, she studied with Alfredo Corvino. In addition to Mercer, Byrne has taught at Princeton University, The College of New Jersey, Princeton Ballet School, Lawrenceville School, and the Anthony Rabara Pilates Studio.

The varied program includes group pieces featuring Latin and Malaysian sounds, a high energy number inspired by aerobic dance, and another in which five performers dance to classical guitar music. Also contributing work are Jennifer Gladney, a 2003 alumna who has performed with MDE for 10 years, and Han Koon Ooi, a 2009 alumnus who has performed for five years.

The anniversary concert is also unusual because Byrne is, after a long hiatus, going to perform. “Elle(s)”, a trio by Byrne for herself and guest artists Cheryl Whitney Marcaud and Diane Kuhl, seen in March at Rider’s Yvonne Theatre, is a delight.

Choreographing doesn’t get easier, Byrne says. “You would think I would have a bag of magic tricks, but I don’t.”

Photo: MDE dancers Hanna Bruskin, DeHaven Rogers, Yvonne Clark, Brianne Scott, and Ian Conley.

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One thought on “Janell Byrne: 30 Years with MDE

  1. Also that weekend, a free afternoon concert t the 92nd Street Y in New York City, were Princeton-based Maria Alonso Snyder will perform Songs of Nilad, an ode to friendship between two people from 3 to 4 p.m. She says the piece is inspired by a little known story in Philippine history between 1935-1941 when over 1300 European Jews found sanctuary in Manila. These families, mostly escaping the impending deportation to various German and Polish concentration camps, were able to blend in and live in complete harmony with the Filipino people, forming lasting friendships during this special time in history.Songs of Nilad is a duet performed by Henri Velandia and Danielle Mondi with music by Rob Berger, Tin Hat and two short historical compositions by Joseph Cysner, the Cantor at Temple Emil in Manila. These are folk songs/hymns composed in 1938 while interned in Zbaszyn, Poland.

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