Melissa Cottle discovered dance through a happy accident. She took a class for fun during her freshman year of college, and that chance exposure marked a turning point in her life. That class might also turn out to have an impact on local dance.
"Melissa is a very strong choreographer," said dance professor Patricia Rincon of UC San Diego, where Cottle is a senior. "In fact, I recommended that her work be highlighted at the faculty dance concert this weekend. We've never done that before with any student.
"My fear is that we're not developing young choreographers," Rincon said. "That's why I'm so delighted about Melissa. Her work is very avant-garde--almost on the edge of performance art. She utilizes her visual arts background and brings in original music. Melissa is very creative, and she has a lot of potential."
Cottle takes her accolades in stride--including an award for best student choreographer from UCSD's Undergraduate Arts Festival--but acknowledges that "it's an honor to be the first student to share a program with the faculty. It's very special because I feel it's their way of acknowledging the work I've done."
When Cottle realized her passion for dance was not merely a passing fancy, the determined tyro had to design her own program, since UCSD does not offer a degree in dance. She is the university's first student to major in dance.
"I work with dance and theater faculty, and take courses in sculpture, painting and performance art. The program is conceptually based," Cottle said.
"But what it's really about is making art. I started as a sculptor, but I like to pursue anything that interests me--until I can't pursue it anymore. Now, dance is my strongest (expression). It will always be part of whatever I do."
Jean Isaacs, artistic director of Three's Company, the leading modern dance troupe in town, was the first to recognize Cottle's creativity.
"She's definitely my protege," Isaacs said. "After all, I taught her modern dance. But her dances don't really look like mine. Melissa is very self-directed. She has her own individual bent."
At this weekend's concert, which will be danced entirely by students, the 25-year-old Cottle will present what she calls a "pure dance piece," titled "Friends." The quintet is strictly modern in its movements, and has original music by UCSD graduate Christopher Penney to complement the designs. But the feelings it evokes from the fledgling choreographer run very deep.
"It's emotionally intense," Cottle said. "But it's not melodramatic. The most important thing to me about how the audience perceives the piece is that it's not about characters and it's not about archetypes. It's about five friends--my friends."
Cottle cast herself in "Friends," but now says she'll never do that again.
"It's much harder to choreograph when I'm in it. But I love dancing this piece. It has a lot of meaning to it."
Cottle will appear in three other works in this 10-piece potpourri of ballet, jazz, modern and theater dance.
"I'm doing 'Facets,' a ballet by Margaret Marshall (co-director of the concert), and the duet in Jean Isaacs' 'No Subject/No Object,' " she said. "I'm also doing Jean's 'Hoedown at the Boneyard.' She enlarged it for about 15 dancers for this performance."
Isaacs is Cottle's idol, and the aspiring dancer has her sights set on joining the San Diego-based company as a full-fledged member. This summer, she will take a step in that direction when she begins work as a Three's Company intern.
"I've got a full scholarship for the summer, but I'm taking it one day at a time. Meanwhile, I'll keep working on my sculpture, and hopefully I'll have some type of cohesive career. My future feels very promising."
Unlike many talented hopefuls who look beyond our borders for a career in concert dance, Cottle seems content to stay on home turf--at least for a while.
"I have no plans to rush off to New York," she said. "San Diego just needs some nurturing. . . . I'm really interested in sticking it out, as long as I'm not having doors closed in my face."
Cottle's ultimate plan is to strike out on her own with a modern-based ensemble that has an interdisciplinary orientation.
"My long-term goal is to have my own company," Cottle said. "I like working with musicians, and I like the visual aspects. It would be something on the edge of modern dance and performance art. I'd like to take it as far as I can. And if I can get the support and the audiences, I'll do it right here. "
This weekend's performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mandeville Auditorium on the UCSD campus.