Rising Up Through Dance: Shaunna Vella

Shaunna Vella“The life of a dancer is a life of passion,” said Shaunna Vella ’03, MFA ’16, who has been dancing all her life and should know. Vella, a member of the Saint Mary’s dance faculty, is the director of the spring dance concert, Rise, on May 11-13 in the LeFevre Theatre. It is a celebration of the Saint Mary’s Dance Company’s 20th anniversary.

The title, Rise, has particular meaning for Vella, who chose the name for the concert last fall.

“I was thinking about what it means to rise—as individuals, as a community, as a college,  and what it means to rise up and come together as a country,” she said, adding that rising, “with a certain lightness and feeling,” is a part of the dance vocabulary.

Vella’s choreography is also infused with her passion for social and political issues. In developing the name of the concert, she was inspired by the creative work of others, including Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise, and the memoir, When We Rise, by longtime activist Cleve Jones, who started the AIDS Memorial Quilt. For the last few months she has been researching fascism and creating a work that stands in opposition to it, using radical psychedelic jazz and experimental movement.

“I am interested in unearthing some of the things that we don’t necessarily look at, recalibrating them for the stage,” Vella said, including this work which is part of a concert that takes a wide view of the many ways people address the challenges in their lives today.

Rise will include African and ballroom dancing, as well as multiple modern dances choreographed by the dance faculty using different styles and techniques, Vella said. “There are little pieces of strength, humor, sorrow, and grief in it, with celebration, too, of course, and a little flash.”

The performers are undergraduates in the program, in works choreographed by Saint Mary’s faculty, a current graduate student in the MFA in Dance program, and by “amazing guest teachers and guest artists,” Vella added. “We are such a great community of artists together.” She stressed the distinct advantage of having access to the treasure trove of professional dancers and choreographers in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Second only to New York City,” she said. “It’s one of the most incredible areas in the country for thriving dance practices.”

In fact, dancers, by their nature, work in community, said Vella, who thinks a lot about what it means to be a dancer in this world. “It’s different from being a painter or a writer. I can’t just go out to a remote cabin and create work. I have to be in relation to others. That’s how a dancer works. We’re always in communal spaces.”  

Vella herself continues to dance professionally in the area, in addition to teaching at Saint Mary’s and maintaining the constant practice of improving and developing her craft through classes in dance, movement science, acting, and mindfulness. The San Luis Obispo native grew up in dance, lucky to have excellent teachers and considerable experience performing as a child. She came to Saint Mary’s looking for an undergraduate major in dance combined with a solid liberal arts education. She met CatherineMarie Davalos  and knew at once that she’d made the right decision. For four years she studied with Davalos, director of the Dance Program, Dana Lawton, chair of the Performing Arts Department, and numerous visiting artists. She was one of the first graduates of the MFA in Dance program. Works by Davalos and Lawton are included in the spring concert.

“I think the audience will be blown away,” Vella said. “These beautiful dancers in our undergraduate program are exquisitely talented professional level performers. Plus our amazing faculty, guest teachers and guest artists. I think people will be astounded by it all.”

Rise runs May 11-13 at 8 p.m. and May 13 at 4 p.m. in the LeFevre Theatre. For more information on the 20th anniversary concert and how to buy tickets, visit stmarys-ca.edu/dance-rise.