Correction Appended: This article carried the byline of Priya Bali. Whitney Dibo wrote the article.

This was not a performance of tutu-clad dancers in neatly staggered lines. Instead of settling for familiar aesthetics, the dancers and choreographers featured in the University Dance Department’s “Rituals and Reveries” delved deeper into the intricate business of storytelling through dance, making for impressively distinct and bold performances.

A company of more than 60 dancers took on six ambitious pieces. The first of these was choreographed in 1931 by the legendary Martha Graham. A three-part piece evoking the American Southwest, “Primitive Mysteries” featured a dozen women dancing with extreme precision and sustained tension around Dance junior Lindsay Kline, beautifully costumed in stark white. The piece was not concerned with overtly showcasing the dancers’ skills, but rather with bringing to life the story of the Madonna’s coming-of-age and ascent to heaven. Talk about esoteric symbolism.

While audience members unfamiliar with Graham’s avant-garde choreography probably found “Primitive Mysteries” somewhat inaccessible, Graham’s innovative technique and lasting impact on modern dance cannot be understated. The students actually learned the choreography through Martha Graham Dance Company principal dancer Diane Gray.

After the Martha Graham piece, the show’s pace picked up considerably. Dance Prof. Robin Wilson’s piece “Blank Spaces” used dream-like lighting and projected images and videos to delve into the painful state of memory loss. Dancers teetered on the edge of carefully constructed light pools, grasping toward the darkness and yelling numbers out of order to further convey the jumbled state of mental deterioration. Live music – flute, clarinet and an eerily manipulated piano – drove the piece. Metal parts had been attached to the piano’s strings, reverberating as the keys were pressed with the kind of sound usually achieved through a synthesizer.

The highlight of the show was easily Peter Sparling’s 1990 piece “Witness,” a chilling tribute to men whose lives were taken by AIDS. The piece begins with three breathtakingly talented male dancers – one shirtless, one casually dressed and the third wearing a shirt and tie – signifying the range of men affected by the disease. A dozen men join them, and the stage is suddenly transformed into a kind of battleground, with men falling into one another, grasping for each other and dragging each other to safety. At the piece’s end, the stage is littered with bodies, leaving one man standing alone in ray of light. Sparling’s piece is startlingly powerful to say the least, and showcases the brimming talent of the Dance Department’s male dancers.

The evening’s final piece featured dancers in brightly colored raincoats strutting their stuff to an upbeat techno beat. After two hours of symbolism-saturated dance, this fun piece was a welcome closer.

The only negative aspect of the concert was the apparent lack of student attendance. On Saturday night the Power Center was barely half full – an embarrassingly sparse attendance that doesn’t correlate with the professionalism of the department’s performance.

Rituals and Reveries
Friday and Saturday
At the Power Center

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