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Modern dance company performs “Saints and Angels”

A combination of original choreography, composition, costuming and culture makes up Dance Elixir, a local modern dance company founded and directed by Mills Alumna Leyya Tawil.

Director and Mills alum Leyya Tawil (far left) practices with other members of her troupe.

Tawil, who graduated from the College in 2003, was joined by fellow alumna Isabelle Sjahsarn, a 2002 graduate, in performing “Saints and Angels,” Feb. 19 and 26 at the Temescal Arts Centre.

According to Tawil, the program represents “dance as a practice of faith and giving,” evoking images of sainthood, sacredness and angelic beings.

“I’m interested to see who turns out for this show because it’s named ‘Saints and Angels,’” Sjahsarn said, concerned that Dance Elixir’s typically “very atheist” crowd may not attend.

Tawil said the saints and angels that appear in the choreography are not the religious type, though the show makes plenty of spiritual references, including a bread and wine reception in between acts.

“We’re not religious,” Sjahsarn said.

“We practice dance,” Tawil interjected. “That’s like my religion…The saints and angels I’m referring to are like the archangels of dance.”

Tawil and Sjahsarn think about their choreography as if it were sacred scripture, their bodies becoming temples and their movements becoming prayer. Everything they do is dance.

“It’s very mysterious, dance and what we do all day,” Tawil said. “We don’t really come home with a paycheck or anything tangible,” she laughed. “It has to be a calling. Otherwise you wouldn’t [do it].”

Dance is their calling in life and they both said they have loved it as long as they can remember.

–Video produced by Lauren Sliter. Contributed by Melodie Miu.

“My first memories are of dancing and that being my dream,” Sjahsarn said. Her first memory involved dancing with her teddy bear at the age of four.

“I don’t ever remember not dancing,” Tawil said, who recalls making up dances to Madonna and Michael Jackson songs.

But neither of their parents saw dancing as anything more than a childhood hobby.

“The concept of dance as a career was so far beyond the realm of things that I was supposed to be when I grew up,” Tawil said. “I just knew I wanted to dance. I loved to dance. ‘I want to dance, I want to dance, I want to dance,’ and I didn’t even know what that meant.”

Tawil was attending the University of Michigan, intending to become an electrical engineer, when she realized that she could not live without dance.

“I couldn’t stop dancing,” she remembered.

Though she had been studying dance very seriously for many years, Sjahsarn’s dream of a career in dance was just as mysterious to her parents.

“They thought I was going to do something in government,” Sjahsarn said, who remembers her mom pushing her to attend a university instead of auditioning for local ballet companies.

“Lucky for me,” she added.

The two met at Mills, where Tawil earned her M.F.A. and Sjahsarn earned her B.A. in dance.

“The education I got [at Mills] balanced out what I received at University of Michigan,” Tawil said. “I was able to round out my education here.”

Dancers rehearsing before their first performance on Feb. 19.

The College’s history was incredibly important to both Tawil and Sjahsarn.

“A lot of very important artists came out of this program and also visited here,” said Tawil. “It happened here.”

Both dancers continued to think about the other after leaving Mills, leading to their eventual collaboration.

“She had never left my psyche,” Tawil said about Sjahsarn.

Tawil feels particularly close to the Oakland community. She said she wants to give the city a chance to see this work before she takes Dance Elixir on tour to the Middle East.

“The idea that it’s free is really important…I want to do as many things to give back to Oakland as possible,” Tawil said. “It’s kind of like an offering.”