Tupelo native choreographs dance

By Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A Tupelo native’s work will soon grace the stage at the Kennedy Center.
Roxie Doniphan Thomas got her start dancing in Tupelo and continued training at the University of Mississippi. Her career will hit a milestone tonight in Washington, D.C., when one of her works, “Set in Motion,” is staged at the arts facility.
The dance is a part of “Unhinged,” a show billed as “world premieres by three of Washington’s leading female choreographers.”
“It’s really humbling and overwhelming,” Thomas said in a phone interview. “It’s such a huge opportunity.”
Thomas’ day job is teaching dance at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Maryland. She was approached by her peers to contribute a dance to the “Unhinged” show, which also features dances choreographed by Francesca Jandasek and Kate Jordan.
The theme for “Unhinged” is doors, and Thomas based her piece on the story of Sarah Winchester.
Winchester, heiress to the Winchester firearms fortune, suffered the tragic deaths of her daughter and husband. She also believed she was haunted by the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles, so she built a large house as a maze, with stairways going nowhere or windows that open to a wall, to confuse the spirits. Winchester died in 1922 but her home, known as the Winchester Mystery House, is a popular tourist magnet in California.
Thomas designed a set that moves with the dancers in the piece, to reference Winchester’s ever-evolving home.
“I found it really fascinating,” Thomas said. “I think that was her grieving process. … I thought about how we grieve, and how we all start having these sort of routines and things keep moving. The set keeps moving and evolving into something else. I thought about how we as human beings and the world are constantly changing. I went from a very literal story to a very abstract idea.”
Thomas calls her style of dance “modern dance,” with heavy influences of jazz and ballet.
“I think it’s important for me, as a choreographer and as someone who teaches movement to take certain ideas and turn it into something the audience can relate to, and feel like the audience is rooted in that movement,” she said. “It’s important to me that the style is relatable.”
As she works toward her honor this weekend at the Kennedy Center, her heart is still in Tupelo.
“The support there has always been my foundation for the opportunities that have unfolded around me in my dance career,” Thomas said. “It has truly been a blessing to be nurtured by my family, teachers and friends in Mississippi.”
sheena.barnett@journalinc.com