Fall Dance Concert at Sweet Briar features successful alumnae, faculty and students

Sweet Briar dance students on stage.

Former dance majors Betty Skeen ’07 and Jessica Murphy ’13 will return to Sweet Briar to join faculty and students for the College’s Fall Dance Concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, and Saturday, Nov. 16, in Murchison Lane Auditorium in the Babcock Fine Arts Center. The event is free and open to the public.

It’s part of the new “Alumnae in Dance Return” series, says Professor of Dance Ella Magruder. 

Lynchburg native Jessica Murphy is a teaching artist curious about collaborative making. The dance she will perform at Sweet Briar, “Humanity Against the Cards,” premiered in May 2018 in Stillwater, Okla., as part of the Brave Art Dance Fest. Over its many iterations since then, it has come to capture the “unique, messy and often humorous creative process” of dancing partners Murphy and Cylene Walker-Willis. 

“The dance is structured with layers of choreographed movement phrases, improvisational movement scores and stream-of-consciousness dialogue between the two performers,” Murphy explains. “To complicate matters even more, the stage is littered with playing cards from the game ‘Cards Against Humanity.’ Throughout the performance, the dancers interact with the cards to throw each other off and to challenge each other’s Type A tendency to sort, organize and make sense of all the pieces … no matter how bizarre.”

Murphy’s dance training began at the young age of 4. Since then, she has studied modern, ballet, tap, jazz, pointe, lyrical, musical theater and hip hop. She has trained extensively under the mentorship of Ella and Mark Magruder (Menagerie Dance Company/Beverly Blossom/Mimi Gerrard), Sarah Gamblin (Bebe Miller), Jordan Fuchs (Jordan Fuchs Dance Company), Matt Henley (Randy James Dance Works/Sean Curran Company) and Mary Williford-Shade (Mark Taylor/Mark Dendy). She has taught students between the ages of 3 and 99 at numerous locations throughout Virginia, Oklahoma and Texas. Her choreography has been showcased at the World Dance Alliance Global Summit in Canada, the South by Southwest Festival and various regional festivals and university concerts. 

Murphy completed her M.F.A. in dance choreography at Texas Woman’s University, where she was awarded the Outstanding Graduate Student Scholarship by the Department of Dance and the Outstanding Master’s Student award by the Graduate Student Council. She earned her M.A.T. and a B.A. in dance and education at Sweet Briar College. 

Murphy’s philosophy of education is student-centered and she is currently experimenting with ways to make her dance-making process reflective of this philosophy. More specifically, she is curious about how a group of artists create work together when there is no clear hierarchical power structure or single leader to guide the process. Murphy currently resides in Texas, where she serves as an adjunct professor of dance at the University of North Texas, Richland College and Collin College. To see more of her work, visit her dance company’s website at www.wildlybrave.org.

Betty SkeenBetty Skeen’s piece will revisit material from two earlier works: “End Song” was commissioned by the University of Maryland, College Park in 2015, while “The Evening Is Wearing, Darling,” debuted at Movement Research at the Judson Church (in New York City) in 2015. These pieces, Skeen says, both investigate the act of remembering, and thus also the act of re-remembering, misremembering and forgetting. 

“There are qualities of deep longing within both original works, and there is perhaps a good old-fashioned romance at the core of all three,” she adds. Skeen uses original text to support the movement score. 

Skeen was born and raised in South Carolina. She earned her high school diploma at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities residential high school, studying ballet under Stanislav Issaev and modern dance with Sandra Neels. She received her B.A. in dance with a minor in English and creative writing from Sweet Briar College, studying under Mark and Ella Magruder, and her M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she was mentored by the legendary Mim Rosen. Her work has been shown extensively in Washington, D.C., as well as in New York City, and has received two Metro DC Dance Awards. 

Skeen has served as a graduate teaching assistant and guest artist at the University of Maryland, as well as a visiting assistant professor at Sweet Briar College. She has had the pleasure of performing in works by artists such as Sarah Skaggs, Joseph Poulson, Tzveta Kassabova, Colleen Thomas, Aviva Geismar, Alvin Mayes, Dawn Springer, Gesel Mason, Charli Brissey, Megan Harold, Dahlia Nayar and Angella Foster. In addition to independent performance projects, Skeen was a company member of PearsonWidrig Dance Theater from 2010 to 2016. 

Leaving New York City in 2016 for the Hudson Valley, she has spent the last three years raising her two young daughters and cultivating and participating in the local dance community. She currently collaborates and performs with Haven Movement in Newburgh, N.Y., teaches Advanced Techniques with the acclaimed Barefoot Dance Center, guest-teaches with Newburgh Open Movement, and conducts low-cost community-accessible movement classes and workshops through Betty Skeen Dance. She currently resides in Cornwall, N.Y., with her husband and two daughters. 

Skeen and Murphy will be joined by Sweet Briar students Haylei Libran ’20, Tamia Jackson ’21, Rachel Woods ’20 and Mary Parker ’21, who are all choreographing for — and performing in — the Fall Dance Concert.

Mark Magruder in “Besame Mucho.” Photo by Andrew Wilds

Professor of Dance Mark Magruder is also performing, and he’s resurrecting an old favorite: “Besame Mucho.”

“This is a solo that was choreographed by my mentor Beverly Blossom,” he says. “It is a real challenge because the performer is half man and half woman. The costume is quite elaborate, consisting of a tux, top hat and a gorgeous dress.”

Mark Magruder has staged it many times in various places throughout the years, including in New York City. He still remembers the favorable reviews. “It is a real crowd-pleaser.”

For more information, email Mark Magruder at mmagruder@sbc.edu.