DECATUR — Each year during Millikin University’s summer vacation, dance director Sean Morrissey begins to plan for the winter’s annual Solstice concert. He seeks inspiration for novel dance pieces he can work on in the fall semester with the university’s ensembles, but no matter how much he prepares, only a small portion of the final show is ultimately in his hands.
Because Solstice is a showpiece for both faculty and student-choreographed dance pieces, he doesn’t truly know what will be in the show until the students bring in their own original dances for audition.
“The only thing we personally control is our own pieces,” said Morrissey, who will lead Millikin’s dance department in three performances of Solstice in Albert Taylor Theatre beginning Thursday. “When we hold the auditions, the students are bringing in fully realized pieces of choreography, which is always exciting.”
The pieces the students submit run a full range of styles, from jazz and modern dance to tap, hip-hop or comedy. Some of the themes are in line with what one would expect from 18-year-olds with somewhat limited life experience, but all the student-choreographed pieces are pure examples of their own artistic expression.
“It’s really a potluck of artistic achievement,” Morrissey said. “All the choreographers are given full rein to explore. Occasionally, we will ask a student to take a piece they’ve done in class and perform it for Solstice because it’s really exemplary, but overall, we really like for it to be an eclectic evening.”
The best pieces, Morrissey said, are often those that surprise him or co-director Angie Miller. They’ve both seen plenty of student submissions, but unusually novel pieces are a delight when they occur.
“There’s always at least one big surprise every year that could take on any number of forms,” he said. “It could be the sophistication or even the simplicity of it. It’s very hard for young choreographers to embrace simplicity because they have a tendency to want to use all their tricks at once. When they present something clean and precise that really communicates its themes, it surprises me in the best way.”
For his own contribution, meanwhile, the director likes to approach Solstice as a blank slate. It represents a chance to try new concepts he’s never explored before with a willing student ensemble to bring them to life. Their relative success isn’t nearly as important as the act of discovery.
“This year, I’ve gone back to my jazz roots,” he said. “I use the show to push myself to uncomfortable places, seeking growth. It can send you to either success or failure, but I believe every piece finds its audience somewhere.”
As long as one person in the audience experiences a strong reaction to a dance piece, the artists consider it to have achieved a degree of success.
“Life can’t happen without movement, and that’s what dance is all about,” Morrissey said. “Angie Miller has said that dance highlights the visuals of life. I think it’s great if people can view dance and connect it to something in their own personal experience.”