BY SUSAN BROILI
The American Dance Festival’s “Footprints” program ended this 87th season on a high note in performances Friday, July 20 and Saturday, July 21, 2018 at Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater.
In it, a total of twenty-five ADF students showed what they could do in three ADF-commissioned world premieres by choreographers Jillian Pena, Dafi Altabeb and Abby Zbikowski, who worked with the students during the festival to create these works.
Pena’s “Empire” began while audience members were filing into the theater on Saturday, July 21. On a stage covered in white marked by a black grid, three floor-bound female performers went through a repeated sequence of poses that included sitting, braced by their arms, legs together and toes pointed. In another position, they held onto one raised one leg as, still on the floor, they turned in a circle.
In addition to gray shorts, they all wore sparkling silver or golden capes trimmed at the top with a crown-like ruff that was almost as tall as their heads.
I liked this “Empire” already, I told myself. There was something other-worldly about it that borrowed from history in a futuristic way. (It would be some time before I had a chance to give a thorough reading of program notes. And, when I did, I saw a Bibliography – something I have rarely if ever seen in an ADF program. The bibliography of 33 sources included Astral Projections, Tonya Harding, Difficult Moms, “Lord of the Flies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
M-m-m. Those capes had resonated with me but I couldn’t pinpoint it then. These performers also communicated the sense of being constricted, bound to someone else’s demands so their movements gave them something to do to pass the time. So, maybe Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaids Tale” could have been an influence for this section. Now that I think about it, those three silver chandeliers suspended above the stage could have been keeping a watchful eye.
As “Empire” officially began in earnest, those three women rose and hurled their capes into the wings and soon all of the cast members came onstage.And, they acted like they didn’t know where they were or what the native language was so they repeatedly used nonsensical sounds..
When they found their voices, individuals called out: “Is this a game?” “What are the rules?” “Do we follow the rules?” “Are we having fun?” in a child-like voice, another asked “Are we on vacation?”
Dancers stood on the balls of their feet and made the sound of escaping steam. They spoke of love and rejection. And, looking to the future they individually said:
“Do you think we can do it?”
“I think we can.”
“Is it even possible?”
“It won’t be easy.”
Then, all performers, except for one, chorused: “We have to win the game. We were chosen.”
And, that one person responded: “Not me.”
“Fight or Flight” seemed to take emotional cues of youthful exuberance and anguish from the music. To Dvorak’s beautiful “Romance for Piano and Violin Op. 11,” the 13-member cast ran this way and that and, in a group, jogged, arms bent and pumping. A dancer ran and jumped into the arms of another. A female performer in a red dress suddenly shimmied while on her knees and later while moving amongst other dancers, she shimmied again.
Still, there was foreshadowing of anguish. A female dancer positioned herself face-down on the floor where she was still. Another female dancer seemed on the verge of falling as she made slipping and sliding motions.
The most anguish, however, was communicated, albeit with some humor and perhaps some exaggeration, in Samuel Elizondo’s monologue that seemed to be autobiographical as he spoke of being in a cabin with friends and hearing what sounded like a growl. “I thought it was probably my stomach. Then, I heard it again. They left me to die,” he said of his friends. …”They came out of the bushes and latched onto my legs. Then, I realized it was a very horny rabbit humping my leg.”
He had also felt alone when he had taken a hot yoga class. As he talked, he demonstrated downward dog and warrior poses. “Besides almost passing out, I was farting all the time. I hate when other people laugh at me,” Elizondo said.
He had also felt crushed in ballet class at the beginning of his freshman year of college. “Someone came up to me and said they could see my stomach over my tights. I went a week only drinking water and [eating] a few crackers. “
He added that he had taken a knife and tried to cut “his body” off.
By this time, we’re hearing the 1979 “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure’, an English rock band. Elizondo dropped to the floor. Leaping dancers filled the stage while he remained still. Finally, cast members stood facing the audience except for Elizondo, who jogged in place.
Cheering fellow dancers on occurred before the curtain rose on Abby Zbikowkski’s “Tectonic”. And, they would need it in what would be an intensely physical workout in which contact with the floor was a goal. They were all wearing knee pads.
Some cast members continued to yell encouragement from the wings as a dancer slid on one knee and then the other knee and another took a staggering step and fell on first one side and then the other side of her body..
In a squatting position, a male dancer defined constant motion. A male dancer performed multiple handstands so fast his motions blurred. Another time, one of the guys, on his hands and knees, kept pounding one knee hard on the floor. “Good job!”, someone shouted from the wings.
A female dancer executed a handstand, legs spread and a male dancer catapulted himself through the opening.
Then, there was the section when together, multiple dancers resembled box shapes as they bumped, on their knee caps across the stage.
Briefly, we saw the opposite of fast and constant hard knocks. A female dancer walked slowly as though she meant it. A member of the cast said: “Breathe” and they did. The group moved slowly the sound of their breathing their only music.
A nanosecond later – or so it seemed – the cast, running fast, swarmed.
“Tectonic” was the second ADF-commissioned world premiere by Abby Zbikowski performed this season. The first, “Indestructible,” was part of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s program that opened the season. In it, company members showed powerful strength and endurance. And, so did those ADF students in “Tectonic.”