On Thursday, February 3rd, 2011 I entered the Power Center at the University of Michigan to watch the University Dance Company perform in Dancing Americas. The show showcased dances from across the Americas, from tango to jazz to New York City pop. The purpose of Dancing Americas is to celebrate multiple disciplines in dance across time and space. The cultural diversity within this program set each performance apart from the other.
While the program featured the work of four different choreographers, I will only focus on the first two pieces within the program: “MinEvent” and “Towards A Sudden Silence.” The show opened with “MinEvent,” a piece by Merce Cunningham. This piece was the most contemporary of the night. The curtain rose to reveal a barebones set. The backdrop, curtains on the wings and everything else was removed leaving a set that was reminiscent of a construction site. The industrial feel of this performance was the first of many surprises. I should note that Merce Cunningham was known for his innovation. He believed that music and dance should be created independently of one another. Thus, the dancers rehearsed in silence and were not exposed to the music prior to this performance. This created a very interesting experience, as the music was nothing like traditional music.
The music was reminiscent of an introduction to music composition class I once took. The class philosophy held that any combination of sound was music. This philosophy seemed to define the music within this first piece, as there was no apparent tempo or melody. The “music” included many unpleasant sounds: sawing wood, tin cans, feedback, drills, bells, chewing of food, change in a mixing bowl, whisks and a plethora of other non-traditional instruments. While I can appreciate the creativity within the music, I felt that it became distracting at points. I often found myself engulfed in the creation of this music, which pulled my attention away from the dance itself.
The dance started with two people on stage, a man and a woman. Their moves were stiff and extremely rapid, but synchronized at times. Their grey leotards revealed every curve of their body. This was very interesting, as you could see every muscle working to create their art. It was like watching a machine. The dance continued with multiple groups of dancers running on and off the stage. Because of the bare nature of the set we could see the dancers waiting in the wings, which was also a very interesting experience. The dancers would often run on and off stage at full speed. They would come on in groups of two or three, dancing to their own beat. As more dancers began making their entrance the colors of their costumes began to change. We began to see dancers in light blue and red costumes. These bright colors were a relief and provided a stark contrast from the set and the costumes initial dancers. There were not many times when the entire group of dancers was on stage and dancing in unison. Throughout the majority of this performance the dancers all seemed to be doing their own dance in the same style. As mentioned previously, the dancers were very mechanical and almost alien in their movement. I distinctly remember a reoccurring move that involved an isolated violent shaking of the foot. The dancer would walk up the stage and engage in this birdlike dance. It reminded me somewhat of a mating dance from the wild. The performance was extremely foreign to me, so much so that it is difficult for me to actually describe the choreography.
I must admit that this performance made me feel a bit uncomfortable. It was an extremely visceral experience that pushed me past my comfort zone. However, I appreciated it and felt that it was the highlight of the evening. It was truly an indescribable performance.
Melissa Beck choreographed the second piece of the evening, “Towards A Sudden Silence.” While I felt that “MinEvent” was more memorable, this was the most enjoyable piece throughout the program. When the curtain rose the audience was presented with a more traditional dance experience. The curtains were lowered in the wings and downstage and the set was very simple and featured a bench downstage center. The bench was adorned with several female dancers wearing bright colored dresses, each a different shade. The women were poised and proper with their hands in their laps and their backs straight up. At the end of the bench stood a single male dancer, who seemed to be a headmaster of sorts. When the choreography began, a female dancer at the end of the bench closest to the man attempted to stand up only to be brought back down by her peers. The anguish in her face assisted the audience’s interpretation of the piece. She wanted out. Once she escaped she stood upstage right. She then began running in place, but tripping with each step. It looked as if she was trying to escape from something, but was unable to obtain that freedom. Her running became more violent with every stride. She began flailing in place, creating audible grunts. Her attempt to escape became so violent that her headband flew off of her head onto the ground. She stopped. It was as if she had given up. She picked up her headband, placed it on her head and straightened out her dress. The remainder of the piece reflected this first scene. The dancers attempting to break free, becoming more and more violent only to be corralled back in by their peers or the lone male.
I came to this performance with a feminist point of view, believing that our patriarchal society as some sort of control over minorities, including women and especially women within a sexual minority. To me, this performance seemed to be a testament to this ideology. The women performing within this piece carried with them a fire. They were angry and wanted more than anything to break out of the roles in which our society has cast them.
The two performances, though extremely different, created an experience and elicited visceral emotional responses. While I was unaware of the quality in dance throughout the majority of the show, I was able to connect to the performances on an emotional level. Whether that was feeling uncomfortable and awkward or feeling a strong connected to the performance and its meaning. For me, the emotional connection to these performances was the most impressive aspect of this program.