Friday, November 2, 2007

Celebrate the season of dance

New book features array of valley dancers

Express Staff Writer

?Breathing Life Through Dance? by Aubrey Stephens.

If you could just stop the action long enough to take stock, to really see how your child looks right smack in the middle of a dance recital, wouldn't you?

That urge is why parents madly take photographs from the dark audience during a performance—to capture the exact instant, the moment when their dancing prodigy is shining. But our cameras, the lack of light and the distance from the stage all play against our ability to do the impossible. But, take the dancers off the stage and into a studio lit by seven strobe lights and have a professional ask them to leap, jump, pose and spin, and magic ensues.

Between 2000 and 2007, Aubrey Stephens, a retired dentist who resides in Hailey, took hundreds of shots of Footlight Dance Centre dancers in school studios, performance sites and his own living room and backyard.

A selection of these astonishing photos has been published in a new hardcover coffee-table book called "Breathing Life Through Dance." Stephens will sign the book at Chapter One Bookstore in Ketchum from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 24.

"It's catching the moment the audience never sees, because dance is fluid," Stephens said. "I don't think the audience is aware of the subtleties of ballet, the motor control of soft fingers and relaxed faces. They don't see the extreme extensions."

Stephens, a grandfather seven times over, maintained a thriving dental practice in a remote Alaskan community for more than 35 years. After his retirement in 1995, he returned to Idaho. It was on a chance visit to an art gallery in Seattle—where he saw the work of photographer Elizabeth Opalenik—when he focused his creative interests on photography.

He spent the next decade honing his technical and creative skills through professional workshops at leading photography schools in Santa Fe, Montana, Maine, Colorado, Idaho and Hawaii.

His studies came full circle when he did figure-study work with Opalenik. His passion for dance photography emerged while studying with New York dance photographer Lois Greenfield.

But it was Wood River Valley resident Hilarie Neely, the founder and director of Footlight Dance Centre, who gave him the chance to work with Footlight dancers.

"She gave me the opportunity to help me grow," he said.

Among the dancers featured in the book are many who appeared in the lead roles in the past seven spring performances by Footlight, including McKenna Peterson, Molly Sides, Kaley Pruitt, Leah Taylor, Pia Shivdasani, Christina Arpp, Marta Petersen, Addy Mason, Hayley Andrews, Alex Stabler and Brianna Rego. Several Footlight instructors, notably Neely and Jessica Humphrey, also appear in action.

One of the reasons Stephens is drawn to dancers is his own experience as an athlete and his belief that people worship the wrong kind of heroes.

"Our values have gotten goofed up," he said. "Dancers don't get the recognition (that athletes do) and I want the community to understand that the season of dance is years."

Dancing, along with yoga, gymnastics and weight training, is an activity that requires enhanced muscle memory. The senior dancers who are featured in "Breathing Life Through Dance" have danced for years, and "they know every muscle in their bodies," Stephens said. Their ability to physically create a scenic story for Stephens' camera is proof of their intense training.

"Dancers are among the truly gifted souls," he writes in the book. "They endlessly create and recreate themselves before our very eyes."

There's another aspect that Stephens, an intellectual man of intense focus and learning, is passionate about—the fact that brain activity is enhanced by music and in turn by dancing.

"The prefrontal cortex makes us human," Stephens said. "It's not right brain-left brain, but continuous interaction. Dance and music both integrate the logical with the mathematical."

In fact, the prefrontal cortex plays an important role in cognitive control and the ability to orchestrate thought and action in harmony with internal goals. Hence, determination meets creativity meets physical control.

"Creativity is so, so important," Stephens said. "It's one aspect you can't off-shore. It's uniquely individual. It's so important to become self-determined. Dance teaches that."

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