Behind Popular Fata Morgana Shows, a Collaborative Process

Fata Morgana dancers rehearse in the dance studio during a community time period. Photos by Olivia Brown.

Five dancers for GDS’ student dance group, Fata Morgana, walked into the dance studio for a rehearsal on a Thursday morning. They casually chattered as they entered, and a few took off their shoes.

The choreographer for the dance about to be rehearsed, junior Zoe Ferguson—who is also one of Fata’s heads—stared at the floor for a moment and then called the group together. She soon began to demonstrate a move to two dancers, while the others practiced on their own.

The dance included synchronized and individual movements and dramatic kicks and spins. “What feels better,” Ferguson asked at one point, “right or left?” Left, the group agreed. 

Another time, one of the dancers improvised a flourish to part of the choreography and Ferguson paused. “That was cute. I liked that,” she said.

Ferguson noted in an interview that, though she prepares choreography in advance, many of the specifics of the dance are worked out during rehearsals. “I usually end up tweaking it when I’m actually in the studio with the dancers,” she said.

Junior Avery Brown, Fata’s other head, explained that the spirit of collaboration is important to Fata’s culture. In auditions, dancers don’t compete for slots in the group because everyone is accepted. Instead, auditions help the heads and choreographers assign students to dances. “It’s supposed to be a fun thing, like a team bonding experience,” she said. 

Fata members rehearse their fall setlist from auditions in September to shows on Dec. 8, 9 and 10, in the dance studio or the acting room, depending on which is available, generally during community time. Each dance has one rehearsal a week. “Getting a break from sitting down at a desk doing your schoolwork in the middle of the day to move is I think something all of us really appreciate,” Ferguson said of rehearsals.

Fata is an almost entirely student-run group; the dances, which are of a wide variety of sizes and style, are choreographed, cast, managed and performed by student members.  

The faculty advisor, dance and acting teacher Maria Watson, affirmed in an interview her belief in the heads’ capacity to run the group without her stepping in. “They were elected heads because they know what they’re doing,” she said. “I try not to sit in too much at rehearsals because it makes the dancers nervous,” she added, laughing.

But Watson occasionally intervenes if she has concerns about a dance. “If I see something that’s just not working, or if something is really in your face risque, then that’s got to go,” she said.

Both Brown and Ferguson were elected to their positions as Fata heads—Brown in the fall semester of last year and Ferguson in the spring. Brown was the first Fata head to be elected (though she was the only one who ran).

Before, Fata heads were selected by the previous heads, but the group’s then-heads changed the policy after anonymous posts on the Instagram account @blackatgds criticized the group’s head selection process for producing a series of white leaders.

As heads, Brown and Ferguson assign dancers to dances after auditions, manage each dance’s schedule and reserve rooms for rehearsals. They occasionally come into rehearsals of dances they aren’t part of to give feedback and also organize a day of rehearsal when everyone performs their dances for each other to get a sense of which dances might need extra support. 

Another function of being a Fata head is to choreograph the opening number of the show that features every dancer, a process Brown characterized as “kind of stressful, even though it’s fun.” 

Looking ahead to the December shows, Brown, Ferguson and senior Elly Robinson, a Fata dancer who has been with the group all throughout high school, all expressed excitement. “I just think all my dances this year are really good,” Robinson said.

One member of the GDS community who anticipates coming to see the upcoming Fata show has a connection to the group that traces back almost 25 years: Tenth Grade Dean Julie Stein ’99, one of Fata’s founders.

Stein told the Bit that Fata was initially a small group of about six students who performed experimental modern dance. “There’s something really special about starting something and being small and scrappy and quirky and weird,” Stein said. “There was a magic in that.” 

When she returned to GDS as a teacher in 2013 and saw Fata’s shows, she was impressed by how Fata had grown beyond her and her friends’ initial, modest conception. “I just love how many people are involved in it,” she said. “I’m so excited that people get to go to GDS, love dance and find outlets for it.”

The group has taken on a cultural significance at GDS. The audience for any show is important, but for Fata shows there is a tradition of the audience directly interacting with performers and cheering for them. “The more the audience cheers, the more hyped up we get on stage,” Brown said. “And it’s just a way better experience for everyone involved.” 

Stein recalled jokingly that the Fata shows she performed with her friends were “hushed and serious,” in contrast to today’s Fata performances. They “were joyful,” she added, “but we took ourselves very seriously as artists.”

When Stein first started Fata, there was no faculty advisor. Watson became the second faculty advisor in the mid-2000s and, in a change from her predecessor’s policy, allowed anyone who auditioned for Fata to get in. “When I took over, I was like, we should really make dance for everyone,” she said.

Ferguson told the Bit that some of Fata’s popularity among students and teachers can be attributed to its deep roots at GDS. “There’s a bit of iconicism to the shows that makes people excited to see them,” she said.