Zodiaque Dance Company Marking 30th Anniversary with Reunion, Two-Weekend Concert

By Donna Budniewski

Release Date: November 7, 2003 This content is archived.


Almost 30 years ago, Thomas Ralabate showed up with a friend to attend a dance class at UB taught by Linda Homeyer Swiniuch, founder of the Zodiaque Dance Company.

He never left.

Ralabate, now associate professor of theatre and dance, and director of Zodiaque, has witnessed and participated in the birth and growth of the eclectic, award-winning dance company, even as his own career as a dancer, teacher and administrator flourished at UB.

Zodiaque began with a small group of dancers in 1973 and didn't have a name until the following year, when it staged its first performance, "Summerdance '74." To date, the company has brought dance to more than 75,000 young people, with more than 350 dancers performing in hundreds of concerts in venues ranging from the Erie Basin Marina, loading docks, art galleries and churches and cathedrals to the former Pfeifer Theatre, ArtPark and its current home spaces in the Center for the Arts and the Katherine Cornell Theatre in the Ellicott Complex.

The company will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a two-weekend concert -- on Nov. 13-16 and Nov. 20-23 -- that will showcase the work of some of UB's finest dance alumni, says Ralabate. All pieces in the concert, to be held in the Drama Theatre in the Center for the Arts, North Campus, have been choreographed by UB dance alumni and will be performed by current Zodiaque student members.The reputation of the company, fostered by Swiniuch's fierce commitment to the rigors of education, as well as dance, has ensured the company's growth, while also allowing it to become more selective, explains Ralabate.

"I think what has sustained the company and the department and its programs for 30 years is that we have such a strong tradition of excellence, which was established by Swiniuch who was the founding director of the UB dance program and the dance company. She felt there was no dichotomy between education and performance, and that all types of dance forms should have the same respectability as being mutually valuable," says Ralabate.

"We have held onto that tradition -- and that type of philosophy is instilled in the students -- that we're a very eclectic program with an equal emphasis on jazz, ballet, modern and even tap here. So when our students do go out into the real world, they're very marketable," says Ralabate.

"We're conservatory style -- we place such a heavy emphasis on education -- the reading and writing, the book component. All the performance experience is fueled and backed up by educational experiences. When they're very young, they need to find the balance between the performance and doing their class work," he points out.

"We're very strict with them, but we're also a nurturing dance faculty. We don't treat them like they're in high school -- they're very responsible for their actions."

And as the art of dance has grown and changed, so has Zodiaque, Ralabate notes, becoming increasingly more eclectic and more affected by other cultures and America's own urban hip-hop.

This year, UB's dance program and Zodiaque witnessed a record number of applications to the dance program and auditions (185 and 124 students auditioned, respectively), which has fueled the creation of two additional performance groups: Zodiaque Dance Ensemble and Young Choreographers Showcase.

On Nov. 15, Zodiaque alumni, friends and guests will gather for a gala reunion at that evening's dance concert. A special "Pre-Show" event preceding the concert will feature the presentation of the first UB Zodiaque Dance Company Distinguished Alumni Awards recognizing alumni for their significant impact on dance as an art form as demonstrated through excellence in the areas of performance, choreography and arts education.

Recipients include Jeffrey Denman, a Broadway actor ("The Producers," "How to Succeed," "Cats," Shaw Festival), choreographer and author; Jeanne Goddard, choreographer and professor of dance at Wells College, and choreographer and performer Jon Lehrer, associate director for Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago.

A slide presentation and special tribute to Swiniuch, professor emeritus of dance, will highlight the pre-show, which also will include presentation of the first UB Zodiaque Dance Company Directors' Awards recognizing major supporters of the Zodiaque Dance Company. Recipients include Carol Greiner, Marilyn Ciancio, Swiniuch and the UB Center for the Arts.

As the list of successful alumni grows and the company and dance program have become more selective, Ralabate says both have seen students go on to work for such renowned companies as River North Dance Company of Chicago, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Ralabate says several "shots in the arm" keep him challenged and committed to dance at UB.

"The Center for the Arts has made a really strong commitment to dance -- we get yearly residencies through CFA initiatives to work with artists-in-residence, which creates valuable networking experiences. We're also able to provide mini-residencies and master classes, with alumni coming back to teach. Alumni are good about giving back to the program," he says, adding that moving into the CFA mid-career after being on the South Campus also was a pivotal moment personally.

Ralabate says he never expected the program to become so successful and yet, while he feels very strongly that it's important to give arts lovers a wonderful aesthetic experience, he's also dedicated to helping them understand the fact that people also make a living trying to provide that experience.

What does the future hold for Zodiaque?

"It would be so nice if Zodiaque would become known beyond college venues," Ralabate says. "I want the name to be known on a national level for the quality dance education, not just performance."

UB's dance program is attracting wider attention in part, says Ralabate, because the department has been able to host national groups like Jazz Dance World Congress and Dance Master's of America. "It's really raised the visibility of what we do here," Ralabate says of the acclaim the facilities and quality of dancers have received by hosting dancers and choreographers nationally and internationally.

Simply being in the classroom provides the personal and professional energy that keeps Ralabate invigorated and creative after nearly 30 years.

"I just love to teach, love the process of teaching," he says. "For me, it's always been a two-way street. I've tried to make all my classes a place where students also have a voice -- students can also articulate ideas so they develop a dance identity. That takes time, and it's amazing when we watch the freshman become young emerging artists by the time they're seniors.

"It's not sad for me to see people move on," Ralabate says of the four-year rotation of students. "Things come full circle."