Jill would have been proud; a dance review.
By Sue Langenberg
It was a dance memorial to Jill Wagoner Johnson as students of Studio 121 performed their spring concert at Winneshiek Playhouse this past weekend. The pieces were previously choreographed by Johnson, and restaged by new director, Sarah Long,
Johnson passed away from cancer last summer, too young and too vibrant, leaving some 20 years of impact on the dance community in Freeport. She had already transitioned Studio 121 to Long and planned to focus on another specialty, Pilates, part time when life took a seemingly sudden and tragic turn.
Whenever there is any change in artistic direction, whether political or tragic, there may be a somewhat fracturing of forces within. Indeed this entire area is somewhat impacted by changes, especially in the dance community. With the sudden firing of Rockford Dance Company’s Margaret Faust after 15 years, the retirement of Northern Illinois University’s dance program guru Randy Newsom and the sad loss of Johnson, area dancers may need some time to get their training bearings.
For Studio 121, it is Long’s third year as director. She was an appropriate and easy choice. Long had, after all, grown up with Johnson’s good studio work and the dance parts that went along with it. She then fine tuned her background at NIU with the emphasis on dance. Her combined talent for theatricality and cool head about leading has brought her to an opportunity that Johnson would have choreographed herself. Long faces a daunting task to rebuild an effect, but is clearly up to the challenge.
Long has recently revived some of Johnson’s works, as well as creating her own. The weekend program (though perhaps a big too lengthy) was a reflection of the past and an inspiring look to the future. The first act was a step-by-step showpiece, “Etudes” (Chopin) of all levels of ballet in all tempos and moods as the development occurs in a dancer’s life. The Beginning Modern and Advanced Modern were also featured with contemporary moves by all, including charming whippersnappers, later featured in “Funny Bones,” a giggly haphazard look at pure frolic.
Regardless of skill level, the overall impression of this performance is that the students seem happy to perform and bloom wherever they may in their journey to educate their bodies and minds. In the end, it is process of daily work that is the reward. It makes growing up and developing all life skills accessible and more meaningful. This is demonstration of Long’s ability to communicate such.
The second act was most moving as “Little Women” was revived. The piece is likely the jewel of Johnson’s choreographic works. To the music of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, the characters of literature came to life in a way that only inspiring creations do, especially the slow movement of serious illness around the girls.
And while the Kleenexes were in use, a slide show followed with a reminder at just how vibrant Johnson’s connection with the dancers, and how life can suddenly change all that. Studio 121, however, is indeed moving on…