After a long pandemic-necessitated break, one more aspect of the University’s performing arts scene returned on Thursday, Dec. 2 and Friday, Dec. 3.: the annual fall Faculty Dance Show. Titled “FULL SPEED AHEAD!” the program consisted of a prologue and three pieces, danced by both faculty and students, and was dedicated to John Spencer Camp Professor of Music Emeritus Alvin Lucier, who passed away earlier this month. The works in “Full Speed Ahead” touched on race in America, not being the “right kind” of person, homage to different eras of choreography, and how social change affects movement.
Associate Professor of Dance and Director of the Allbritton Center Katja Kolcio began the evening with a piece called “The force of breath; when the world around us changes,” which combined projected images and text, music, direct address, and audience participation. The performance draws on Kolcio’s work in Ukraine.
“I started working in Ukraine in 2014 with [a] civic, kind of a grassroots organization there,” Kolcio said. “My interest was in the relationship between our bodies and social change. How do we facilitate social change? What happens, really? Because we have to change the way we are in the world. And that seems to have a physical connection.”
Anti-government protests, called the Revolution of Dignity, took place that same year after a wave of demonstrations began the previous November. The protests succeeded in ousting then-president Viktor Yanukovych and led to much social change in Ukraine, which, according to Kolcio, was a vibrant civil society with an emphasis on mutual aid. They also led to the Russian invasion of the nation.
“My work…stayed with social change, what happens when the world around you changes, but I started working more and more in the zone of conflict and with soldiers,” Kolcio said. “Same questions, but just the context keeps changing. In the last year, when the whole world changed in very physical ways, due to the pandemic…we couldn’t even be in the world the way we’re used to being. Those questions just took on a broader and broader relevance. With this being the first in-person performance, it seemed like a good time to share my work and take a pause to recognize the value of us all being together.”
Kolcio’s piece began with a video presentation of photos from Ukraine that showed how life had changed due to the changing political context of the country. Photographs would reveal more of themselves over time: The audience would see a line of trees, and then a group of people carrying a body would appear. These photographs were taken by Evgeniy Maloletka, and the video was created by Waldemart Klyuzko. There were scenes of war, like a soldier reading by a munitions pile, and more quotidian ones, like men walking bikes up a staircase or a line of onions on a kitchen shelf of a ruined building. Underneath was a recording of Nadia Tarnawsky’s voice singing “Ked my pryjshla karta,” accompanied by Brandon Vance on violin.
Kolcio, spotlighted, entered the stage, and began to speak to the audience, giving sociopolitical context for the images displayed. On the screen behind her, the letters of the word “breath” emerged and disappeared in a rhythmic, respiratory pattern. Kolcio described the movement work she’d done in the country and the way the body connects to social change. Kolcio referenced the pandemic, underlining how dance was impacted by social distancing and mask-wearing.
Kolcio explained that the song that had played was about a young person headed off to war who asks to dance at least one more time. She told the audience to notice how we’re positioned, to breathe together, and pointed out that a feeling of safety is necessary for a true deep exhale. Kolcio emphasized that with each breath, the audience massages their hearts. Kolcio then spoke to the specialness of the audience being able to be together, breathing together, dancing, and watching dance together. Then she walked off the stage.
The premiere of “The Right Kind,” by Visiting Instructor in Dance Nik Owens ’12, began with an empty stage and a microphone stand lying on the ground lit squarely in the spotlight. Music began to stir, and Owens entered the stage. Walking gracefully, he moved towards the mic stand, picked it up, began to move with and next to it.
Throughout the piece, Owens alternated between slower and more frenetic movements. At times, the sound of his breath would cut through music or silence, his physical exertion made auditory, the effort blending into the sound mix. He ran, leaped, crawled, moved across the stage, to music at times plaintive or upbeat, to silence danced through. As an audience member, I was struck by the control of his movements and the variety of ways he could move his body, seeming to draw on multiple forms of dance.
Then he took the mic and spoke to the audience. Owens talked about another person, whose voice came in later. The piece was a conversation, the audience realized, between two people. They spoke about desire, about being happy when someone is around, about it hurting when they’re not. This conversation was supplanted at times by a refrain of “keep north.” What “keep north” meant was never made obvious to the audience, but the words echoed out into the room with weight.
At the end of the piece, Owens returned to the mic stand and began to move more quickly again: leaping, falling, jogging, jumping, rising around the stage. The piece ended with him lying down.
“The Right Kind” delves into a personal journey, exploring what it means to be who you are when you feel who you are isn’t enough, touching upon notions of Black identity, empathy, and the relationship between invisibility and invincibility.
The next piece, “Blurring the Surface,” was danced by Assistant Professor of Dance Iddrisu (Iddi) Saaka and Shirley Sullivan ’21. The dance was choreographed by Saaka in collaboration with Sullivan and Assistant Professor of Music John Dankwa, who also composed the music. The piece began with Sullivan and Saaka on stage, apart, in the spotlight.
The two danced separately but also together. Motions would share connections, or line up at points, but were definitely different. One would undulate as the other stepped, bringing arms around in circles. At times throughout the dance, Saaka and Sullivan would mirror each other, their physical dialogue coming to an agreement.
Sullivan, and then Saaka, had voiceover narration that undergirded their performance. These spoken word pieces were about race and the dancer’s personal experiences of identity in America, Ghana—where Saaka is originally from—and Israel, where he once lived with his wife.
Sullivan described her complicated relationship to her Latina identity, how her parents had given her a less Hispanic-sounding name, and how it had affected her growing up. She spoke frankly about the way her racial identity, and the skin tone she presented to the world, figured into her identity and how she saw herself. As Sullivan’s voice described this for the audience, her body danced underneath the sound, moving through the ideas. Dankwa’s music provided an emotional structure for the piece too, moving between moods as the dancers and their voiceovers did too.
Saaka’s portion reflected on his childhood in Ghana, his experiences in college and abroad with racism, and the way he used dance to find himself and express himself. He spoke of inequality as he danced of it, too. He talked about times that he had felt like a target—being the only Black person on a plane and having a little girl cry when he sat in her aisle and having someone yell at him to go back to his country on Washington Street, here in Middletown.
Then the voices started to come together, speaking about love, solidarity, and common humanity as Sullivan and Saaka danced together, now in unison. The music turned hopeful.
Last was Artist-in-Residence Patricia Beaman’s “Ode,” which drew on baroque and mid-20th century dance. The piece featured 17 student and faculty dancers as well as a harpsichord, and ended, under a disco ball, with the whole group doing the hustle.
“[“Ode”] bridges my background as a French 18th-century Baroque dancer with my work as a person, as a dancer of the 20th and 21st century,” Beaman said in an interview prior to the performance. “My focus was on postmodern dancers of the 1960s that emanated from Judson dance theater. After years of performing a Baroque dance professionally, I decided it was time for me to branch out to something different. I started learning all of these postmodern dances that have become quite historical in their own right, and then I realized that there was actually a lot of similarities between the two eras, despite the fact that there was a difference of 300 years there.”
The stage was set up with chairs and a harpsichord placed towards the rear. Beaman, dressed in Baroque style with a white mask covering her face and a large wig, entered and came to the center of the stage. She dressed in a huge pink skirt, patterned almost like flowers, a matching corset, and gloves. She whipped out a fan and began to dance, moving like a dancer would have in France centuries ago.
Beaman walked down the stage to the audience and pulled up John Spencer Camp Professor of Music Neely Bruce, to whom she gave a cloak and a masquerade mask. He went up to the harpsichord and began to play as the dancers—a mix of students and professors—filed in. The group lined up and donned masquerade masks, just like Bruce wore. Then, they started dancing in earnest, moving between styles and time periods.
In the first section, about one-half of the group would go up and dance while the other members sat in chairs alongside the side of the stage and watched, clapping at the end. Then they would trade off. The whole group danced together, too, moving in long lines, making tableaus, dancing in the style of Charlie Brown—everyone in their own little world, whether that was 18th-century France or 20th-century NYC, as Bruce played in the background. Strangely, the dance styles seemed more similar than expected.
“[They share] a lack of sort of flash and a sense of great formalism in putting together the work,” Beaman said in an interview.
More dance styles came into the mix as different dancers soloed briefly in a sort of call-and-response game. Throughout it all, the mood was playful, irreverent, tongue-in-cheek. The audience laughed as they watched.
Then, a game of musical chairs. The dancers moved around the line of seats, and when the music stopped, they frantically lunged for a place to sit. Whoever was the odd one out would solo for the audience. This section merged physical comedy with incredible movement, and we got to see each dancer’s unique style come out.
Lastly, the whole group danced together to “The Hustle” by Van McCoy (the music utilized in the show is as much of a mix as the dance; from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to J.S. Bach). A disco ball lowered from the ceiling, and light spun across the room as the dancers, well, did the hustle. Then, they broke off, and started doing their own things again, 17 dancers on stage moving and grooving in their own ways. In our seats, the audience was dancing again, too. Together.
Sophie Griffin can be reached at email@example.com.