The University of Montana School of Theatre & Dance is set to bring lighting, costumes, larger casts and themes of social justice to the stage for its flagship performance Dance in Concert.

The annual show at UM’s Montana Theatre will feature eight unique and original works across all dance genres produced by faculty, students and guest artists, including a performance that touches on immigration and the crisis at the border. 

Heidi Eggert, the show’s producer and head of dance at UM, said this year’s iteration, running Dec. 5-7, is particularly exciting because it includes more large group dances than is typical.

“This year feels unique and energetically different because a lot of these dances have a large cast,” Eggert said. “Several have a dozen or more dancers, and so that’s a sheer energy that is generated on stage through those dancers that spills out into the audience for sure.”

The scale and scope of the production elements that go into the show like lighting, costumes, props and set design, are also elevated to match the size of the theater, Eggert said, giving it a more grandiose atmosphere.

One of the large ensemble performances is produced by this year’s guest artist, Cynthia Gutierrez-Garner, a renowned choreographer and assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Western Oregon University.

Gutierrez-Garner has restaged her work “Camino Real” for a 12-person performance featuring all-white costumes designed by theater professor Alessia Carpoca. The group work is inspired by and puts a human face to the crisis at the border.

Gutierrez-Garner said she originally choreographed the piece 10 years ago when she was living in Phoenix and witnessed the plight of migrants and the issues happening at the border there.

“At the time, there were a lot of efforts by local militia men to actually go out and remove humanitarian supplies that were being left by other groups just to try and aid these people in some way,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, this is my home, and I’m Latina, and these issues are really important to me, so let’s see how we can process some of this through our art.’”

The piece explores the hardships immigrants face after fleeing their countries in search of a better future. And while the situation at the border has evolved and changed since she first choreographed the piece, she said the message remains the same.

“It’s interesting because the work seems like it could have just been choreographed,” she said. “I’m always trying to explore and remind viewers that at the heart of all these issues are human beings, and it’s really easy to politicize any of these discussions. My hope for people watching this is it’s just a reminder that this is really hard, what these people do.”

She said it’s also a chance for the students to enrich their own lives and develop as citizen artists.

“It’s a great opportunity to have these conversations and to educate and empower the dancers in terms of a role of allyship,” she said. “I find that it’s really impactful for the students, and that’s really what I’m trying to do beyond making a strong piece of art.”

Eggert said it was startling how relevant “Camino Real” remains today, 10 years later.

“Hopefully, it provides an opportunity to reflect on a lack of change or change in the wrong direction,” Eggert said.

Visiting assistant professor Brooklyn Draper and Eggert are also premiering their newest works.

Eggert said her piece, “Livin’ Vivaldi Loca,” speaks to the evolution of courtship and grandeur using dance trends from present day and dating back to the 1600s.

“It’s so over the top,” she said. “I’m trying to take a humorous slant on looking at dance and social interaction over the past two centuries, so it’s something lighthearted there for sure.”

The night is also a chance for graduating seniors to showcase their final projects. Alyssa Enright, Tiki Preston and Kyle Robinson will present their creative projects, a culmination of their dance careers at UM.

Preston, who’s been dancing ever since she can remember, said she and her peers have been working on their senior projects for three months now and the Dance in Concert is a chance to show their work on a big scale.

“Just to be able to see my work on a larger stage is really exciting,” Preston said. “It creates a new way for me to make a piece and to look at things.”

The choreography for her senior thesis, called “Bloom,” stems from a piece she did last year for a class project that focused on using the lower half of the body and included hand and head stands.

“Now I have 10 dancers that are displaying that, showing that on stage, and they kind of become these creatures of the sea,” she said.

Working with costume shop supervisor Paula Niccum, Preston thought up outfits that resemble jellyfish, with an inverted skirt that covers the upper body and only displays the dancers’ legs. She said the jellyfish are supposed to represent feminine power, beauty and grace.

“I know that jellyfish are super timid and graceful, but they’re a very strong animal, and I feel that’s a lot of what female power can be,” she said. “I definitely want a sense of seeing the female body in a different way and knowing that it is graceful and sensitive but also super powerful.”

Preston said she was able to work with theater professors, but also students studying lighting, costume and set design for the performance, something they don’t always get a chance to do.

“I think it’s super important that we get to collab with not just professionals and not just professors and teachers, but also with our students and peers, so it’s really special.”

Preston is also performing a duet, “Biovular Associates,” with recent UM dance graduate Logan Prichard.

In addition, local troupe Bare Bait Dance will perform an excerpt from their most recent production, “Here Be Dragons.”

With flavors of hip hop, ballet, modern and theatrical dancing, Eggert said the show features a good representation of artists earlier in their careers, veterans of dance and a lovely range in between.