Maggie Kudirka, 24, had been rehearsing a new dance for nearly four months before she found out what it was about: her. “Blank Canvas,” which premieres at the American Dance Institute on Friday as part of “Air Mail Dances,” portrays the “emotional roller coaster” of Kudirka’s life since she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer last summer, choreographer Runqiao Du says.
“There she was, 23, dancing with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet Concert Group in New York, and what she thought was a muscle strain turns out to be stage 4 breast cancer,” Du recalls.
Kudirka had to move back in with her parents in Ellicott City, Md., and sit still for six-hour stretches of chemotherapy.
“Sometimes I read or watched movies or nodded off,” she says. “But I couldn’t wait to get back into the dance studio.”
Just a week after completing her first round of chemo, Kudirka enrolled in local ballet classes. Turns sometimes left Kudirka dizzy, and she struggled with fatigue, but she soldiered on.
Still, when Du began choreographing “Blank Canvas” in December, he wasn’t sure if the ballerina whose tenacity inspired the piece would be able to dance in it. Rehearsals started in January, and Kudirka had a double mastectomy scheduled for the day after Christmas.
About a week after surgery, with her doctor’s blessing, Kudirka began attending rehearsals for the new piece.
“I was feeling OK, but my center of balance changed,” she says. “My body wasn’t used to having five pounds less on top.”
It wasn’t long before Kudirka was dancing with abandon despite her uncertain future, Du says. That’s exactly what he hopes to capture in “Blank Canvas”: the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of death.
He never told Kudirka that. She found out from the nosy reporter who wrote this story.
“I like to let dancers find their own sense of meaning in the movement,” Du says.
“Blank Canvas” was also inspired by four pieces of paper covered with crudely drawn figures of dancers. Du gave these so-called “Air Mail Dances,” drawn by choreographer Remy Charlip in the 1970s and ’80s, to choreographer Jodi Melnick, whose version is also part of the performance.
Though Du’s dance is abstract, it has something of a narrative arc. It starts out with dancers moving as if they are in a fog, accompanied by melancholy music. By the piece’s end, the music turns joyful and the dancers exude energy and exuberance.
“The last movement is a celebration, and I want Maggie to be fearless and just go all out and dance.”
That’s also the future Kudirka envisions for herself. Six rounds of chemo beat back the cancer, but the deadly cells still lurk in her body. Yet she’s optimistic that a cure will be found.
“I don’t worry too much about the future,” she says. “I’m feeling good and dancing and doing what I love today.”
American Dance Institute, 1570 East Jefferson St., Rockville; Fri. & Sat., 8 p.m., $30.
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