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By Bridgette M. Redman
Dance can take people on many unexpected journeys, whether on the stages of the world in performance or the more personal journey of self-discovery.
Jeff Rebudal has done both, and as a professor of dance at Wayne State University and a professional choreographer of modern dance, he leads his students on similar journeys. He began his professional dance career in his home state of Hawaii and went on to be a founding member of two dance companies in New York, the Rebudal Dance and the Sean Curran Company, with which he toured around the world from 1995 to 2003. As a professor, he’s taught in Connecticut, Oklahoma, Arizona and Manoa, Hawaii.
“There is something about touring. You learn so much going from one town to the other, sharing the art with them, and in this case, dance. You see the response people get from the work – it is gratifying,” Rebudal says.
Rebudal hailed from a working-class family that encouraged its children to enter the professional careers. Dance was never thought of as an option, even though movement was a big part of their lives.
“Going to the theater or live art was not a high priority. It was movies and television in the ’70s. I would watch Cher and Saturday night spectaculars. I loved it when they danced. With the kids in the neighborhood, we would spend hours making up routines. We were just playing, enjoying ourselves.”
Dance wasn’t about to let go of Rebudal, and when he changed his major from journalism to dance a few credits short of graduating, his family acknowledged it made sense.
“Even when I say I’m going to quit this profession, dance doesn’t want me to leave,” Rebudal says. “This is a profession. You have to go with it until you are done with it.”
Now in Michigan, Rebudal loves exploring the urban setting of Detroit and helping his students make the same discoveries he made as a young man coming out with both his art and his sexuality.
“I have been here for seven years, and I drank the Kool-Aid,” Rebudal says of his transition from New York to Detroit. “The area really spoke to me. You have to like Detroit for what it is.”
Even the empty buildings appealed to him on an artistic level and led to an ongoing project that he will be turning his full-time attention to now that the school year is coming to a close: Spero Meliora. The project, which premiered at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2010, combines dance, multimedia projections and live music in an exploration of urban revitalization. The premiere was 30 minutes long, and Rebudal plans to make it a two-hour show that never performs in the same place twice.
“I can now go back and reassess and think about what has happened in the past two years and integrate it and update it. I can bring it back and recollaborate with my collaborators. I’m going to go to the studio and make new movement for it.”
Two of his most recent choreographic works were Wayne State’s “Hairspray” and a spring dance concert that started out as something fun and took on a more introspective turn.
“‘Hairspray’ sort of writes itself. There’s a definite time period. The challenge was more (about) not repeating the movie but being inspired by the movement in it,” Rebudal says. “My job is always to make the singers look good and effortlessly joining the music.”
The spring dance concert collected ’80s music and led the students in exploring the process of contemplating your past and using it to help deal with your future. Rebudal recalled that as a young man just coming out, he did a lot of dance work early on about sexual identity as his way of helping to understand being gay. As he got older, he tended toward increasingly universal themes. As a teacher, though, he teaches and nurtures students who are at the beginning part of that journey.
“There was an individual in my cast who was beginning to struggle with his sexuality. I sensed he was not sure,” Rebudal says. He assigned everyone journal work asking them to think about their past and how they dealt with it. “He sort of took this idea and used it to his advantage to articulate what he was feeling as this young gay boy. As the piece progressed, he became much more sure of himself and about coming out to his friends. Through this work, he was able to evaluate and synthesize and become much more sure about himself. I eventually gave him a solo so he could get into this whole thing of understanding his past and moving on.”
Meanwhile, Rebudal is continuing his own journey here in Metro Detroit. In addition to his urban renewal project, he is hoping to produce emerging dance artists as he said small companies struggle to find performing venues.
“I’m in the profession of training dancers; why would you train them if there are no viable opportunities?” he says. “I am captivated by the choices (found here in the) dance scene. I would be a huge proponent of trying to create a more viable and exposed venue for the future.”