"These eight women had started as freshmen with me when I was hired in 1995," Ernst said. The 15-minute work, in five movements, celebrated the students' "interdependence and support for each other, both metaphysically and in a real way."
Ernst is reprising the piece this weekend in the faculty dance concert Premium Blend, with an important difference. Berke isn't around to dance it; she died of cancer last fall at the age of 28.
"She was naturally radiant and giving," the professor said of her former student. "She was a beautiful spirit to have around. And she loved to dance. I've felt her presence in the last weeks when we were reconstructing the piece."
Ernst has retooled the dance a bit, adding one male dancer and subtracting one woman. Set to the music of Karl Jenkins, it moves through various configurations, from solos to duets to quintets to the entire octet. Closing the first half of the concert, "Songs of Sanctuary" is dedicated to Berke, who had married only recently.
"We were in touch with Desiree," Ernst said, "and she knew we were dedicating the piece to her."
The three Premium Blend concerts, to be performed Friday and Saturday nights and Saturday afternoon, will celebrate the choreography of the UA's own dance profs. The shows will be among the last dance concerts ever at Crowder Hall, whose poor sight lines are far more suited to music than dance. Construction of the new dance theater at the east end of campus is proceeding slightly ahead of schedule, and is scheduled to kick off with a gala on Oct. 4.
The program is the same for each concert, but the dancers vary. Besides Ernst's piece, the Crowder concerts will offer three faculty premiers, a repertory contemporary ballet by Nina Janik and a guest piece by Lise Houlton, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre.
Houlton's "Sidetracks," set to songs sung by Rickie Lee Jones, is a duet "exploring the turbulent relationship of a young couple" danced alternately by Kelly Schaefer and César Rubio, and Jacqui Guimond and Justin Quandt, said Michael Williams, assistant dance division head. Houlton originally made the dance for UA professors Jory Hancock and Melissa Lowe, and "they mounted it on the other dancers."
Resident guest artist James Clouser, formerly with the Houston Ballet, contributes the brand-new "Bagatelles," a contemporary ballet full of "swift, shimmering and quirky movement," Williams said. A cast of nine will dance to the piano music of Alexander Tcherepnin, played live by Steve Brenn.
The other premiers are both jazz works. Williams said that most dances are performed in eight-count rhythms, but his new "Five Six" is set to fives, sixes and 11s. This odd syncopation comes courtesy of Jazzanova, a German band with a Japanese piano player that specializes in Latin salsa.
"I was attracted to it musically," Williams noted. "It was an interesting combination of rhythmic elements. It's unusual and offered a new challenge." A dozen dancers who are nimble with numbers step out to the mathematical music, placing "the stage in perpetual motion."
Susan Quinn's "Zuhm" is a "funky, fast and fun" piece that doubles the number of dancers to 24 ("A lot!" Williams said) and moves them around to drum music mixed with electronic sound.
Janik's contemporary ballet "Zappaloapan" debuted last season. The Mexican-inspired piece for 11 dancers imagines a voyage to Veracruz. Heavily influenced by folklorico, the ballet deploys dancers dressed in colorful Latin costumes designed by Richard Tuckett.
Williams said that the late dancer Desiree Berke was also a gifted costume designer who created much of the division's stage dancewear.
"She was talented. It's tragic that she lost her life before the age of 30," she said. "She was a very special student. Not only was she a lovely dancer but her spirit was so positive. Her personality was contagious."