Student choreographer conveys strength and empowerment through her dance
February 22, 2019
Billie Eilish’s “You Should See Me in a Crown” reverberated throughout the Rothschild Performing Arts Center, as hints of gold detailing on the dancers’ regal, black dresses shimmered underneath the stage lights. The lights brightened, revealing a line of dancers posed in a kneeling position. Silence fell over the audience as a sense of intensity and seriousness came with each movement.
This year, Sonal Muthal (12) choreographed an all-female dance composed of 10 people out of the seven student-choreographed dances in the annual dance production.
“Part of the reason I took choreography is because it was a requirement for all dance certificate students,” Sonal said. “But the other part is that I’ve been dancing and taking classes for a really long time, and I’ve always really just wanted to actually create the dances myself.”
In the dance choreography elective taught by upper school dance teacher Rachelle Haun, students learn specific techniques to better their choreography and focus on different topics r class, including textures, variation, contrast, counterbalance, theme and character study.
“Before I started, I didn’t realize how much creativity you could have in the process,” Sonal said. “There’s obviously restrictions and bounds to what you can do, but at the end of the day you want to do something that will read well and portray the message you want. It’s interesting because we learn all these techniques that mold our thinking to make our ideas come to life on stage.”
From being in the same dance composition class last year to experiencing choreography class together this year, Emiko Armstrong (11) has witnessed Sonal’s growth as a choreographer.
“She’s one of my best friends, so it was cool to be in this supportive environment and to see each other doing really amazing work,” Emiko said. “I’m always proud of her as a friend, but honestly, I’ve never seen her thrive more than when she was choreographing because she had so much confidence with her movement, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do.”
During choreography class, dancers are often tasked with the challenge of creating snippets of choreography based on prompts, such as forming different shapes. Sonal, along with two other dancers, created a dance utilizing the mirrors and pathways technique for one assignment, and it has been one of her favorite choreographed pieces.
“She’s always had this way with movement where she knows what textures to do perfectly so that all the movement flows together but also looks unique,” Emiko said. “I remember the first time we presented our choreography to one another, and I especially remember seeing her dance and being like, ‘oh my god, that looks like a professional did that.’”
Aside from the skills dancers acquire through the class, choosing music is a prominent aspect of choreographing as well. Each dancer chose two songs from four specific categories and explained why they wanted to choose the song and how they would use it.
“We had to pick music based on the theme of the show, and we had to pick music for every single part of the show, so Grammys, Emmys, Tonys and Oscars,” Sonal said. “Overall, it was really fun because it was pretty free topic, so I kind of looked around to see what I really liked and ended up choosing the song just because I really liked [it].”
After selecting the music, Sonal developed her own theme and the message she wanted to convey through her dance.
“I really like watching strong, powerful dances, so the song that I chose was pretty powerful, and I just wanted to be able to showcase my movement but at the same time create an impactful dance,” she said. “I tried to have my dancers portray a character that’s very egotistical and strong. So, even though that’s not how I personally feel, it’s been fun trying to create this character.”
Sonal based her choreography off of the lyrics of the song, but she also incorporated aspects that reflected her own interpretation of the meaning behind the song.
“The message behind the song is very like, ‘you should see me in my fullest power’ and ‘i’m super powerful’, so I wanted my dancers to be able to embody that,” she said. “I did that through my movement, but the costumes and the lighting all played to this idea that I wanted the dancers to be super powerful and egotistical.”
Within each rehearsal, Sonal taught individual sections of her dance and reviewed other choreography they had learned in previous weeks. Typically, she would teach parts of her dance first, clean the movements they had learned until that point and finally film so her dancers could practice at home.
“As dancers we don’t get to see what goes into the choreography, we only really get to see what she shows us in class, but whether it was a correction or whether she was hyping us up, she was always our friend, yet professional, yet a teacher, yet this brilliant choreographer,” Andrea Simonian (12) said. “It was really beautiful to see that side of her that I really haven’t been able to see before.”
The process of this immense project brought stressful moments, but Sonal endured through it all and created a powerful dance, even with having significantly less rehearsals than usually expected due to other events and vacations.
“The dance really came together during tech week—that was my favorite part because of all the support from my friends and my peers,” Sonal said. “Everybody was cheering and I could finally see it on the stage, which was really unreal. The first time I saw it on stage was when there was something happening with the lights.”
During tech week, Sonal decided on final adjustments regarding lighting decisions and cues, and she wanted the lights to complement the costumes and emphasize the overarching meaning of her dance.
“I personally don’t know that much about lighting, but all the choreographers had a chance to talk to the lighting designer,” Sonal said. “And she sat with us one-on-one and showed us different options we could choose from, and what colors we liked and what colors worked with which costumes. She really guided us through the process, but we had a lot of creative freedom with it too.”
Other than being one of the dancers in her dance, Andrea has also been a longtime friend of Sonal’s and has seen the progression of her dance career since elementary school.
“I’ve known Sonal since before she even wanted to be a dancer,” Andrea said. “And to now see her hit this milestone in her dance career was also very special. I know that she has taught before and choreographed before for Varsity, but to see her take control of the situation like she’d done it a million times before and create such a beautiful dance that was so interesting and unique made me really proud as a friend.”
Throughout the dance, many soloists were featured, including Karina Chen, Aditi Anthapur, and Pamela Duke. Additionally, the dance included unique formations and transitions that embodied the meaning of the song and the vision that Sonal strived to create.
Sonal’s group performed four times, twice on Feb. 1 and twice on Feb. 2. “Sherlock,” the title of the dance, was in Act III and under the category of the Emmy Awards. It was the fourteenth dance of the dance production, and the dancers that performed with Sonal were Aditi Anthapur, Karina Chen, Pamela Duke, Luisa Pan, Kelly Shen, Andrea Simonian, Kismet Singh, Kristin Tong, and Tiffany Zhao.
After the final dance, Sonal only had a few words left to say.
“It was pretty crazy, and I’m just really happy,” she said.