Lights go down on long career for dance instructor

Whitman dance instructor Idalee Hutson-Fish caps her career at the college with a performance this weekend

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Whitman College dance instructor Idalee Hutson-Fish works through the piece "Light Trap" with dancers during a rehearsal before the performance "Intermezzo" this weekend at Cordiner Hall. Wednesday, April 4, 2012

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A full moon rises on stage during "Into the Trees," part of Idalee Hutson-Fish's production "Intermezzo" to be performed this weekend at Cordiner Hall. Wednesday, April 4, 2012

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Idalee Hutson-Fish's shadows is projected on the wings of the Codiner Hall stage as dancers rehearse through a piece before this weekend's upcoming performance of "Intermezzo." Wednesday, April 4, 2012

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Whitman College's Drew Powell (center) dances with other classmates during a rehearsal for "Light Trap," a piece choreographed by Raffaele Exiana that will be performed this weekend during Idalee Hutson-Fish's "Intermezzo." Wednesday, April 4, 2012

WALLA WALLA -- When the lights go down on "Intermezzo" at Cordiner Hall on Saturday, Idalee Hutson-Fish bids her 30-plus-year career at Whitman College an official goodbye.

A moment she expects to be "bittersweet," Hutson-Fish said this week.

The Whitman College dance presentation consists of four works done in movements choreographed by Hutson-Fish and Raffaele Exiana. Jeremy Mims conducts the Whitman College Orchestra and Walla Walla Symphony Youth Orchestra for the free production at Cordiner on Friday and Saturday, beginning at 8 p.m.

Intermezzo starts with "Rising Angels," a piece Hutson-Fish first did in 1997, she said. "My best friend had AIDS and we had many conversations around living to die, or dying to live. And he always said his angels were all around him and that is really what the pieces is about."

In gowns that seem made of butterfly down, her most recent crop of students interpret the story at rehearsal. In just moment, the signal of great effort appears as sheen on foreheads as young men and women -- angels -- rise, rush, envelop their human as she opens her eyes at birth until her last breath.

"The most important thing is what you're trying to say," Hutson-Fish instructs the human girl in a gown colored like the sky at summer dusk. "'I can't see it, I can't feel it, but I know it's there.' And angels, what is it you're saying to your human? You love her. You love her."

Hutson-Fish, 56, knows about those things, love and staying to the end, that is. She came to the college in 1978 at 23, having arrived in Walla Walla two years before to be part of Trails West, an outdoor musical dram produced in the amphitheater at the time, depicting the lives of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.

Like those long-ago missionaries experienced upon arrival, the appearance of the area took the Seattle girl by surprise, Hutson-Fish recalled. "It was Memorial Day weekend in 1976 and I drove in and I said, 'This place is beautiful. Oh my God!'"

Hutson-Fish had known from the time she was a little girl that she was born to teach, she said, and when a fellow Trails West member suggested she go to Whitman College, it seemed the perfect opportunity.

And the school needed her as much as Hutson-Fish needed to be there. Then dance was offered here and there through the P.E. department. But Deborah DuNann Winter, who had joined the faculty in 1974, had other plans, Hutson-Fish said. "She wanted to get me teaching at Whitman and she set it up. She got it started."

The dance program has lived everywhere on campus. "I've taught in every building in Whitman. I remember I was teaching on the third floor of Memorial. It was a great room, large, with wood floors, great light. It was gorgeous. And the dancers were bounding around up there and then the ceiling over the business office collapsed."

Not all at once, but the program got the eviction notice, she said with a laugh.

Her classes got a permanent home in 2000 when the college converted an old auto-body shop on Boyer Avenue to a dance studio. "That's when I was put on salary and the program starting looking like it does now," Hutson-Fish explained.

Students don't come to Whitman for dance. The school, renowned for its liberal-arts education, is not for the serious dance student, she said. Yet there are many who danced as children who find renewed joy in the discipline while earning a fine arts credit.

Hutson-Fish teaches 18 ballet classes a week, not including those she conducts at her private studio, The Dance Center. Her body began rebelling against the schedule years ago, forcing the dancer to begin getting artificial joints installed. A fall on campus in 2010 exacerbated the damage.

Her passion for dance allowed her to go above the pain, but it's time to address the root cause, she said. "Hips and knees do go for dancers. I also have osteoarthritis and that's not necessarily because of dancing."

A new right hip, slated for June, will help ease things, but at the cost of losing her annual trek to Italy, where she has taught for the past 10 summers, Hutson-Fish said. "I am seriously going to miss that."

It just extends the list of what she can't do anymore, the instructor said. "It's been really hard this year, to physically not be able to do it. Emotionally, too, it's killing me inside to not be able to do things and to show the kids what I mean."

There is relief in knowing her program is going into the good hands of Peter DeGrasse, a former student and Juilliard School of dance, drama and music graduate, Hutson-Fish said. "Peter started taking ballet from me when he was 9. I'm thrilled he is going to be here. It will breathe new life into ballet at Whitman College."

It's time, perhaps, to respond to her own rising angels, who seem to be leading her on to new adventures in Walla Walla, where she plans to continue living. "I'm a permanent fixture here."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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