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With its engineering and medicine-heavy reputation, a class of ultra-talented, budding choreographers may be the last thing anyone expects from the University of Nevada, Reno. This year’s stunning Fall Dance Festival said otherwise. 

During a week of grueling dress rehearsals leading up to the performance, three of the choreographers offered the Sagebrush a look behind-the-scenes. 

Emily Leech, “(un)ATTACHED” 

Emily Leech, a recent psychology and criminal justice graduate, can say she’s been dancing her whole life — no exaggeration. 

“I was put in dance in my preschool program, because my parents said I wouldn’t sit still. Then I was a competition dance kid up until I was a senior in high school,” Leech said. 

That year, however, an injury was enough to take her out of the studio until college — where, if it weren’t for going stir-crazy during the early COVID-19 pandemic, she never would’ve returned to dance. 

The second they had in-person classes again, Leech explained, she signed up for dance. Shortly thereafter, she auditioned for a socially-distanced virtual dance concert — and added dance as a minor that semester. 

Rachel Jackson/Nevada Sagebrush
Emily Leech (center) graduated this spring and returned to choreograph for the Fall Dance Festival this semester.

Her work, “(un)ATTACHED” made it to this year’s Fall Dance Concert by way of the Student Choreography Showcase, a smaller spring event that offers students in Choreography III a chance to workshop an original piece. 

From there, University dance faculty chose student choreographers for the Fall Dance Festival.

Leech was asked to expand “(un)ATTACHED” from the form it took in the Student Choreography Showcase. Altogether, by the time the Fall Dance Festival came around, she’d been working on it for almost a year — and that time brought creative changes.

“Originally, my first draft of this piece was all about relationships and how the same few people can all be related but in very different ways,” Leech said. “I had storylines of how each dancer was interacting with one another, but now there’s more of a broad scope to it, and you can put your own meaning to it.” 

Zoe Malen/Nevada Sagebrush
A performance of “(un)ATTACHED” as part of the Fall Dance Festival.

“(un)ATTACHED” has also undergone important changes moving venues. The dance program, which has been performing in the 82-seat Lombardi Recreation Center for about a year, is now finally able to use the fully-equipped Redfield Proscenium theater. 

“Those are two different settings,” Leech said. “My first dance really fit that intimate setting [in Lombardi] where the audience was next to you. Whereas in here, they do a lot of large, expansive movements, but it’s because the audience is bigger. You have to see it from far away; the storyline still has to read in a different setting.” 

The change in venue has brought about new creative liberties, too. Chief among them: full lighting. 

“I had a vision of my piece taking you through a scene in the evening time, like an apartment building, and each window has its own scene going on,” Leech explained. “And so, lighting it, I wanted it to feel like sunset, into eerie nighttime, into dark, and then it comes to a close and it feels peaceful at the end.” 

Zoe Malen/Nevada Sagebrush
Leech curated “sky colors” for her ensemble.

Leech carried the theme from the costumes chosen for her dancers. Rather than holding to a strict color scheme, she had them bring in their own clothes in “sky” colors, ranging from sunrise orange to deep blue. 

“I wanted it to look pedestrian, but purposeful,” Leech said. 

Jenna Fortino, “PARTY!”

Jenna Fortino, in keeping with her dance’s title, set out to have a good time. After Fortino’s original piece was evaluated during the Student Choreography Showcase, she was asked to explore something new. 

“I didn’t have a solid idea of where I was going, I just knew I wanted to do something fun,” Fortino explained. 

Zoe Malen/Nevada Sagebrush
A silent disco takes the stage in “PARTY!”

The eventual result was a glitter-speckled silent disco, set to tracks like the rollicking “Wizard Disco” by Louie Zong and the easygoing yet danceable “Daylight” by Harry Styles. “PARTY!” also brought some humor, character and spontaneity to the stage — which, Fortino added, was thanks to her open-ended rehearsal process. 

“I’ve been a very go-with-the-flow choreographer, so whatever comes to me in the moment, it’s like, yeah, let’s do it!” Fortino said. “I’m playing with all of these movements and ideas and costumes and props. The dancers, too — they had really good input and feedback.” 

So much so, in fact, that Fortino shared official credit with them on the program. It was also a challenge, Fortino added, “Finding a good balance between play and work, because you get so excited to hang out with your friends while creating a piece.” 

Rachel Jackson/Nevada Sagebrush
Jenna Fortino (right) also graduated this spring and returned to choreograph “PARTY!”

The playfulness of “PARTY!” also marks a change in tone for Fortino. 

“This is my fourth piece here, and the other three pieces have all been relatively serious. My last piece was inspired by a lot of heavy stuff, and once I had finished that piece I was kind of ready to move on and make something exciting,” Fortino said. 

For Fortino, that also meant making peace with her method, and embracing the idea of coming in less-prepared. 

“Usually the beginning concept is not what you end up with, but the end product is something even better than you could’ve imagined,” Fortino said. “It really is a rollercoaster — you just go.”

Petra Warburton, “Please Hold Me” 

Petra Warburton, whose piece “Please Hold Me” closed the Fall Dance Festival, found herself inspired by a very specific form of human connection — touch.

“Last semester, [leading up to the Student Choreography Showcase], I was intrigued by contact improv. It’s this improvisation technique where you basically never separate from each other and you always have weight-sharing between performers. I’ve been very intrigued by how people build trust with each other, so I started thinking, ‘How can I build this through the piece?” Warburton explained.

Rachel Jackson/Nevada Sagebrush
Petra Warburton danced a solo piece as a graduating senior, choreographed by Cari Cunningham, in last semester’s Spring Dance Concert

After she was asked to continue the piece as performed in the Student Choreography Showcase, Warburton turned to fleshing out her characters. 

“I decided to add a storyline about a character who’s very not trusting, then slowly, we have our second character who comes in and he starts to enlighten her on what it could look like to trust and build those connections with other people,” Warburton said. “And then in the middle of the piece, part of the climax is that she finally decides to trust and she jumps wholeheartedly into all their arms. I love that moment — it was so much fun to choreograph.” 

Warburton found catharsis, she added, in allowing the piece to shift the meaning of touch. 

Zoe Malen/Nevada Sagebrush
Petra Warburton’s piece, “Please Hold Me” in the Fall Dance Festival this year.

“I feel like every choreographer is exploring something that is ‘life’ to them. Even if it’s not in the most apparent way, even if they’re choreographing something silly or comedic, it’s a piece of them, every time the choreographer puts something on stage,” Warburton said. 

Peregrine Hart can be reached at or on Instagram @pintofperegrine. 

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