Fans of contemporary dance were treated to a wonderful spectacle two weeks in a row, as the University of Wisconsin’s Dance Department closed out their second weekend of the 2020 Faculty Concert on Saturday, Feb. 15.
The show featured choreography from university dance faculty, as well as guest choreographer Sean Curran, and performances from a variety of students. The Dance Department consistently filled the 240 seats of the Margaret H’Doubler Performance Space in Lathrop Hall. The audience was a good mix of students, professionals and parents.
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The show opened with a premier of one of the larger and lengthier contemporary pieces, “Said and Done,” choreographed by Dr. Jin-Wen Yu, with music from composer/pianist Nils Frahm.
The piece was an exploration of non-verbal communication with motifs including the mimicking of shouting, whispering, and blowing people away — literally. The performers wore different cuts of custom made blue organza fabric, designed by Amy Panganiban.
Julianna Hom, one of the performers in “Said and Done,” spoke to the process of working with choreographer Jin-Wen Yu.
“He was really able to customize the movements of the dance to fit my strengths as a dancer,” Hom said. “He did a good job highlighting our skill-sets because he had worked with many of us for a long time.”
Next up was my personal favorite piece — “Heartbreak Hotel,” a mix of contemporary, hip-hop and African dance. The number was choreographed by Hip-Hop scholar Duane Lee Holland Jr. and featured a more popular selection of music from Gnarls Barkley and Kanye West.
The dancers wore black jeans and dark toned blazers and unleashed a variety of moves displaying effortless athleticism. The piece seemed to have three sections, with a different pace for each, beginning with contemplative movements, progressing to a more intense section of self-discovery and finishing with a flourish of exuberance and elation.
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Veda Manly, a junior in the dance department, said she was really challenged by the process of learning the piece, but said it also provided an invaluable learning experience.
“I personally don’t have a strong hip-hop background, so it took a lot of personal courage to learn moves I wasn’t super comfortable with,” Manly said. “He [Holland Jr.] was able to explain everything and add historical context for each move, which made it even more interesting.”
The final performance before intermission was a premier of “Dirt,” a contemporary community-based piece choreographed by Li Chiao-Ping in collaboration with the dancers. The piece featured a mash-up of songs, including “Hang on Little Tomato” by Pink Martini, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin, and “The Girl That I Marry” by Irving Berlin, among others.
Cassie Last opened the number with a solo in a green jumpsuit, and was soon joined by a flurry of dancers wearing earthy, colonial garb which gave the movements a gritty feel.
The first half of the show closed with the striking and disturbing image of the dancers rubbing tomatoes on each other, which Last said was, “up for interpretation,” but also said that she viewed it was a way to “initiate and welcome younger dancers into the cast.”
Following a short intermission, dancers once again took the stage for the premier of “The Bend,” choreographed by Chris Walker and featuring music composed by Tim Russell.
Dancers wore jogger material overalls and the piece created tension between two soloists, emphasized by their facial expressions, which was eventually resolved by a stunning visual of the illumination of water falling from the ceiling.
Many of the movements employed in the piece used the Horton Technique, which, according to Dance Spirit, emphasizes “dynamic and dramatic [movements], develops both strength and flexibility, and works with an energy that is constantly in motion.”
Dancer Lauren Forest spoke to her enjoyment of seeing the piece come together and working with choreographer Chris Walker. Walker stuck with a lot of phrase work, which is a group or combination of movements.
“He didn’t structure it until two weeks before the show,” Forest said. “I really enjoyed the vibe of the piece and the tension created with facial expressions. They show that you’re performing to the other dancers, not just the audience.”
The only solo-piece of the show featured recent graduate Lauren John in a premier of “DrRobinPuck,” choreographed by Marlene Skog and featuring music from Timothy Russell, with vocals from Rodolfo Cordova.
According to the concert’s program, the work “imagines a sci-fi version of Shakespeare’s Puck.” The number was an inventive exploration of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” through dance — something I was not expecting in the slightest.
The concert ended with a bang in the form of excerpts from “Social Discourse,” the only piece which had been previously performed, though not by UW dance students.
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Curran worked with multiple casts performing on different nights, and the piece featured music written and performed by Thom Yorke. Each performer in the piece wore a different colored bright leotard and pair of black shorts, which drew attention to the individuality of the respective dancers.
Mariel Schneider, one of the performers, spoke to the message of the dance and the importance of the costumes in the performance.
“[The dance] is very much about people, personalities, and the ways individuals interact with one another,” Schneider said. “The distinct colors bring excitement when the dancers start engaging one another, and the contrast makes for a very engaging experience.”
Following the performance, I left Lathrop Hall with a newfound appreciation for the athleticism and dedication the best dancers display in their craft. In the modern era of the internet, with websites like TikTok growing in popularity, it is easier to forget that truly artistic and impactful dance still exists.
While you may have missed out on your opportunity to see UW’s Dance Department in action, don’t fret — they have more shows this year. You can check their website here to see when they’ll be performing next.