ROCK SPRINGS – Dance Instructor Britta Joy Peterson, MFA, who joined Western’s Performing Arts Department in August, believes that learning the art of dance teaches students far more than simply how to perform on stage.
“It’s not a vocational skill, which I think some people think that it is,” Peterson said. “The students who work with me will be incredible communicators and really articulate writers. They will be creative thinkers and incredible problem-solvers. All of that comes from dealing with issues in both an artistic and an analytical sense.
“I think that’s what the workforce needs; that’s what employers are looking for - versatile thinkers. And artistic practices are the best way to learn how to do that,” she added.
Peterson, 28, earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and her Master of Fine Arts from Arizona State University. She comes to Rock Springs from Seattle, where she had worked as a Teaching Artist and Operations Manager for Velocity Dance Center, and where she has a show, an original duet entitled “Recurring Reverie,” debuting next month.
So how did a metropolitan dance artist from Minneapolis by way of Tempe and Seattle find her way to Rock Springs?
“What drew me here was the relationship between the dance program and the musical theater program, because I live in both worlds,” she said. “I grew up in the theater. I was a vocalist. I played violin for 10 years. I performed with the Children’s Theatre in Minnesota. I choreographed my first play - it was ‘Guys & Dolls’ - when I was in ninth grade. I choreographed 120 middle-schoolers in that show. I do approach theatrical work and concert dance differently, because the nature of the work demands that. But they both feed each other.”
In her first semester at Western, Peterson finds herself working with Assistant Professor of Musical Theater Chris Will and Assistant Professor of Music Josh Wentz on the upcoming production of “Singin’ in the Rain,” which premieres Friday, Nov. 14. She has worked with a large cast of dancers – some of whom have not danced on stage before – in nine-hour rehearsal sessions, and has arranged much of the show’s choreography.
“There are a couple of show-stoppers that are going to completely wow people,” Peterson promised. “I guarantee that you will be impressed.”
As for working with students who are new to the art form, Peterson said that she only has one requirement for teaching someone to dance.
“When I audition people for a show like this, I just need to know that they understand the rhythm of the music,” she explained. “That’s all I really care about. Show me that you understand rhythm and that you understand syncopation, and I can teach you everything else. Teaching rhythm requires a year, which we don’t have. Most kids at this point have developed a sense of rhythm. Rhythm is inherent in life, actually.”
Last year, Western formally coalesced its dance, musical and technical theater, and music programs into a unified Performing Arts Department. The result is a show like “Singin’ in the Rain,” which incorporates the skills and expertise of faculty and students from all of those disciplines. The opportunity to collaborate with faculty from the other programs was a large part of what appealed to Peterson about teaching at Western.
“We all have a very similar value system in how we approach what we do,” she said. “We’re all practicing artists, too. We don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk. I hope that students are able to understand that education is not static. It’s a very dynamic experience.”
In her off hours, Peterson enjoys a variety of outdoor activities, all of which contribute in some way to her practice and understanding of dance. That is another reason why Rock Springs appealed to her as a professional destination.
“I’m a rock-climber, a hiker, a skier,” she said. “I like to jump out of planes and jump off bridges. I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I love to feel my body in extreme situations. Scuba diving is my favorite thing, because it does transform you. It transforms how you relate to your body. You are suddenly weightless, and you have to navigate a totally new terrain.”
“Singin’ in the Rain” is at the WWCC Theatre beginning Friday, Nov. 14, at 7:30 p.m., and continuing Saturday, Nov. 15, and Thursday, Nov. 20 through Saturday, Nov. 22. All evening shows begin at 7:30 p.m., and there will be one public matinee performance on Saturday, Nov. 22, at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors. Children under 5 will not be admitted to any evening performances; however, the Nov. 22 matinee is open to children of all ages.
“Singin’ in the Rain” is presented by special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI). For more information, or to purchase advance tickets, contact the Performing Arts Office at (307) 382-1721, or go to www.wwcc.wy.edu/tix.