UChicago Maya celebrates 10 years of innovative, student-choreographed contemporary dance

Group draws upon wide range of cultural, artistic influences to bring original performances to life

Earlier this year, UChicago Maya took the Logan Center stage for the first time in two years with its winter conceptual showcase, “A Seat at the Table.”

The dancers performed fourteen dynamic and emotional performances, each featuring the work of student choreographers, as well as songs from a number of different genres and languages.

“A Seat at the Table” incorporated a table and chairs as props, with the goal of making the exhibition resemble the various places where people gather. One piece featured dancers sitting together as if at a meal, making shapes and rhythms with their hands on the table. 

Another created the familiar image of a train, choreographed to music that incorporated the sounds of public transit, while others used the table as a stage itself, giving dancers more liberty to play with space and highlight individual solos.

Known for its innovative choreography, UChicago Maya is an entirely student-run and audition-based contemporary fusion dance group that brings together dancers from a wide range of cultural and artistic backgrounds.

Elizabeth Xu, AB’22, one of the co-directors of Maya this past school year, describes Maya’s contemporary dance as a “loosening of ballet with more jazzy styles.” 

“I think for each genre, there’s a certain set of rules, whether it’s the way you initiate movement or the shape of your hands and body, or the overall composition of the piece—those are things that will all look different from genre to genre,” she said.

Founded as a South Asian dance group in 2012, Maya has evolved as students have cycled through it over the course of a decade. The group’s style now changes from season to season depending on the dancers that join their cast. Each year, dancers perform different blends of contemporary, jazz, hip hop, and even folkloric dances, all influenced by their individual backgrounds.

Maya performs at a number of different events each year, including its own winter conceptual show, UChicago’s MODA fashion show each spring, and UChicago Dance Council’s annual show, “Where Fun Comes to Dance.”

Maya started taking applications for student choreographers for the upcoming year early this summer, will host auditions in the fall, and immediately start rehearsals throughout autumn quarter with the selected cast.

In an interview below, recently graduated co-directors Xu and Katrina Hannett, AB’22, discuss their dance backgrounds and experiences in Maya over the years, as well as their reflections on their performances this year.

How did you get into dance?

Xu: I started when I was four in a studio run by Chinese people, so we did ballet, hip hop, and folkloric Chinese dance. I didn’t really do contemporary at all until I came to UChicago Maya—that was the first time I did jazz, contemporary, those kinds of styles.

Hannett: I also started when I was four or five with a jazz and hip hop class for kids. Then growing up, I mostly focused on jazz and hip hop, and as I got older and more involved in contemporary, I took ballet to supplement it.

What are the biggest differences between Maya and your dance experiences growing up?

Xu: Throughout Maya, the pieces that I did really depended on the choreographer. Sometimes it leaned towards hip hop, other times it would be more focused on contemporary. This really gave me a chance to explore traditional genres of dance that I didn’t really get doing folkloric Chinese dance growing up—so it was very different for me in that sense. 

As I became a choreographer, I found it was interesting to pull in my own experiences of Chinese and Mongolian dance styles to influence my choreography, which is a really special thing that only a group like Maya can provide.

Hannett: I think the biggest difference for me is that Maya is entirely student-run, and so all the choreography we learn and dance is taught by our peers. This was definitely new to me since I was used to having older, professional dancers teach, so it was really interesting to see everyone’s unique styles and learn from each other.

What was your favorite part about dancing and performing at UChicago?

Xu: I think something that was really fun was engaging with the audience and feeling the energy in the room. There’s something very special about live performance where you’re seeing the product of a lot of preparation that goes on behind the scenes. You also have the support of friends and family who come and see it, and then discussing the art that you’ve just made afterwards is very fun. 

Hannett: At UChicago, I think dancing provided a special break for me—it was an allocated time for me to stop doing work and socialize with other people. The dance community is also very special since I’ve learned through it just how collaborative dance can be. It’s so different to dance by yourself than to dance with others, and as a choreographer, seeing your dance moves on other people and your vision come to life is very beautiful, too.

What did you enjoy most about “A Seat at the Table”?

Xu: I’m really proud of how it turned out artistically, especially in how we executed our initial idea with the theme and props utilized by our choreographers and dancers. Everyone was very thoughtful. I could see a true connection between dancers that was happening in the pieces and on stage, which was felt by a lot of audience members as well. 

I’m glad everyone was able to have a chance to show off what they’d been working hard on and perform. It was really nice to see them take pride in their own work. Seeing gave me faith in the future of Maya: people will continue dancing because they love dance, and this is a space for them to do that.

—This story was first published on the UChicago College website. UChicago Maya closed the year with its spring showcase, “Haiku 2022,” and a performance at the MODA fashion show. You can view its 2022 spring and winter shows” as well as other projects on its YouTube channel.