ecarte communicates ideas through dance

Emma Massey, left, of Felton, and Gabrielle Beish, of Camden, are two of the performers in Saturday night’s winter concert presented by the ecarte dance theatre at Delaware State University’s Education/Humanities Theater. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — ecarte dance theatre will bring five original pieces to the stage Saturday during its annual winter concert.

ecarte was founded by Judith Engelgau in 1981 after moving to Delaware from North Carolina.

“I had danced my whole life, but had taken a break from classes before I moved here and was inspired to start back up by a local teacher who had been trained at the American Ballet Theatre,” she said. “He was such an inspiration for me to continue with dance.”

In the beginning, Ms. Engelgau started with young children. But as time has gone on, her students have grown up and she now teaches dancers from 4 up through adulthood.

From the very start, two dancers, Tricia Massey and Lisa Scott, have been heavily involved.

“I’ve been dancing for Judith since 1981. I wasn’t an aspiring dancer but my brother played soccer and I wanted something different that was my own thing and I signed up for a summer program with her and the love of dance has just kept me going,” Ms. Scott said.

ecarte presents two shows a year, each a compilation of all original works, never story ballets.

“Sometime there is a thread that weaves the pieces together and sometimes there isn’t,” Ms. Englegau said. “There are a lot of strong pieces that can stand alone and don’t need to be a full two-hour tale.”

Due to the shorter nature of each piece, there is less of a focus on set designs over the movements.

“I think when you’re coming to a show of this nature, contemporary, that you will see the story through the dance, not necessarily through scenery. Ms. Engelgau is so creative. You can understand the story she’s trying to tell without all the extras,” Ms. Scott said.

Lisa Scott, left, and Tricia Massey, both of Felton, are dancers who have been with ecarte since its founding in 1981. (Submitted photo)

Even after 38 years, Ms. Engelgau continues to choreograph the majority of the performances while ballet mistress Ms. Massey assists.

“After every show, I wonder is this it? Have I used up every idea? But I try to remain open to the world and new experiences and I will eventually be struck with some kind of inspiration,” Ms. Engelgau said.

“It can come in any form. It doesn’t have to be music or movement in any particular order, or it could be something other than dance entirely that inspires me.”

Ms. Massey choreographed “Endgame” which comprises one-fifth of the show.

“For me, it’s always the music that comes first, then the choreography second,” she said. “Sometimes a song will catch my interest and I’ll listen to it a few times and if it sticks around in my head, I know that’s the one I want to choreograph to.”

Since the company focuses on modern dance and contemporary ballet, there are very few boundaries when it comes to choosing music. So it could be anything from classical to rock ‘n’ roll. “Endgame” is a mashup of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Philip Glass’ “Violin Concerto.”

It’s a piece drawing on the image of a chess match and featuring senior company dancers Ms. Scott, Diane Beish, Michelle Bryan, Kim Haggard and Ms. Massey.

Many hours of rehearsal lead up to a performance like Saturday’s and it’s only in the week before that everyone gets acclimated to the stage and dancing with one another.

“The different age groups have their own rehearsals and not everyone sees what the others have worked on until the week before the show,” Ms. Massey said. “It’s very fun, but a little hectic too.”

Ms. Massey’s students are ages 4 and up, which makes preparing for the show very exciting.

“They have a lot of energy and everything is so new to them. It’s all about the experience and I love seeing them beam on stage when the lights go up,” she said.

Kim Haggard of Dover will be featured in the ecarte dance theatre piece “Endgame,” which will comprise one-fifth of Saturday’s concert at Delaware State University. (Submitted photo)

While the little ones are in their ballet slippers, some more advanced performers will be in pointe shoes for one of the pieces, which highlights ballet in a more classical way.

“The foundation of everything is classical ballet but we like to showcase many different aspects and types of dance, so doing multiple pieces allows us to do that,” Ms. Englegau said.

She prefers to weave dancers of all ages and abilities into her performances to make it a concert rather than a recital.

“You aren’t going to see a couple dancers come on stage and do a quick number and then leave,” she said. “Everyone has their part and it all weaves together to tell the story.”

Ms. Scott said Ms. Englegau’s openness to incorporate everyone into her performances is part of what makes her a great teacher.

“Certain artistic directors may want you to be a certain height, or at a certain level of skill for your age, but no matter who you are, if you have a passion for dance, Judith is the teacher for you,” Ms. Scott said. “She wants to see all her dancers succeed and get as much from the art as possible.”

Other pieces in Saturday’s concert include “Twisting Trees,” choreographed by Ms. Engelgau to the music of Loreena McKennitt, a nostalgic exploration of the gift of magic in ancient places. It employs a more classical style and includes the entire performing company.

Taking inspiration from the life of Anthony Bourdain, “Save Your Prayers” is a modern work featuring the senior and apprentice companies, danced to the music of Rag’n’Bone Man.

Ms. Engelgau’s philosophy can probably be attributed to her view of dance as one of the most pure forms of communication, something that could almost be called a spiritual experience.

“I wake up in the morning thinking about dance and it’s the last thing I’m thinking about when I go to bed,” Ms. Englegau said. “Dance is really a life force for me and I’ve been teaching for four decades and it’s not something I see myself letting go of anytime soon.”

ecarte will perform at Delaware State University’s Education/Humanities Theatre on Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors and will be available at the theater.

Ashton Brown is a freelance writer living in Dover.

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