Few people dance their way to a degree, but for Olivia Perry — a graduate of North Little Rock High School who has danced on stages from Little Rock to New York City — there could be no more better way to get there.
The 22-year-old senior dance major at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has studied intensively at nearby Ballet Arkansas and has performed twice for the company’s seasonal productions of the Nutcracker.
But Perry has also found herself at home in places more distant, including the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City, the longest continuously operating school of dance in the U.S.
Graham, the “mother of modern dance,” taught and choreographed until her death in 1991. She is universally understood to be the 20th century’s most important dancer, even performing for President Franklin Roosevelt and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom and French Legion of Honor.
Interestingly, until Perry discovered the joys of dance at UALR, the only school in Arkansas to offer dance as a major, she freely confesses to having “no clue who Martha Graham was.”
Perry became hooked shortly after an upper-level modern dance class taught by UALR’s Rhythm McCarthy. The course relies heavily on the teachings of Graham who emphasizes the dancer’s outer expression of inner feelings in each and every movement.
“Modern dance is so abstract, but what I love about it is that you still have to be articulate about why you are doing what you do,” Perry said. “It’s so human. You can’t do a movement without feeling it at a visceral level.”
Whereas classical dance is focused on light, airy movements, especially from the feet, modern dance movements are initiated from the pelvis, working with gravity rather than against it. Perry said it felt like a natural fit from the beginning.
“It’s being a blank canvass,” said Perry. “Everything we as students have asked for, the UALR instructors have done their best to help us get what we needed to express ourselves.”
Perry spent a winter intensive at the Martha Graham school three years ago for the first time and loved it so much she returned two years later for another winter intensive. She has already made plans to return again this winter, having just returned from a three-month long summer session there.
“It’s an obsession,” she said, laughing. “But it’s gotten easier and easier every time as I’ve made friends and have places where I can stay, to help make it more affordable.”
Funding will not be nearly as much a challenge for Perry next semester, when she will study at the Accademia dell’Arte, in the hills overlooking Arezzo, Italy.
Her trip is made possible through a generous grant sponsored by Chip and Cindy Murphy, who will pay for her tuition, while the dance department will handle the round trip airfare.
The competition is for dance majors at UALR who demonstrate academic achievement and talent, as well as active participation in the life of the dance department. A well-written essay is also expected, said UALR Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance Dr. Jay Raphael.
“There are usually four or five entrants who qualify, and the decision making is always very difficult,” he said.
Perry has been a member of TeeBoDans, a troupe of UALR dancers selected for a particular project based on their talent, dedication, collaborative spirit, and shared passion for the art of dance.
Perry also recently staged her first choreographic works, Shadow within Reason, Etiquette, and Atomic Age at UALR, as well as her senior capstone project. She is set to graduate less than two weeks after her return from Italy next semester.
Following commencement, Perry will act on her acceptance into the professional training program at the Graham school where she hopes to follow in the footsteps of dancers before her who have gone on to teach at the school.
Explaining her passion, Perry said she “just started getting addicted to it” and felt most at home in the dance studio or stage. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
For more information on the UALR Department of Theatre and Dance, visit ualr.edu/theatre or call 569-3291.