CAL Choreographers Move Us Closer Together
by Svea Vikander
The stage has always been a place where gender can flow a bit more freely and in which collective desires take reign. In four individually choreographed pieces, the dancers of the Berkeley Dance Project let us imagine a world of exuberant non-conformity. They ask us to consider new ways of thinking of gender, bodies, caring work, and intimacy. And they make all of this—and back bends, and shoulder lifts, and tenderness—look easy.
The first piece, “Agony Drag,” is choreographed by alumnus James Graham. Five dancers (three women and two men) range the stage, leaping, tumbling, spinning, and giving us a brief yet impressive display of white male twerking. While it was made in consultation with the dancers, “Agony Drag” feels underdeveloped. Why do some of the dancers show us megawatt smiles while the others are stone-faced? Why do they go so far upstage that we lose the immediacy of live dance? The absolute physicality of the dancers is this piece’s best quality, as in the moment when one throws himself backward, levitating, it seems, into the arms of another, who breaks his fall by catching him yet stepping his own body backward—a slow-motion domino effect that I could watch for hours.
Madeline Aragon’s piece, “Hear Me Without Words,” is the first of two student-choreographed works created in a class led by choreographer Joe Goode in the fall of 2017. While the two female dancers create an air of romantic intimacy, Aragon says the piece questions our ethical obligations in all our relationships. On performing with her dance partner Bruna Gill, Aragon says, “When we are on stage dancing together…it does feel very real, and a real connection I have with her.” As she and Gill move in unison or syncopation, we share their holding, leaning, and reaching each other.
Hillary Tang performs her own choreography in “Peel,” an incredible solo piece full of spins and swerves, undulations echoed by the thin leather strap that laces up her right arm. Set to music alternating between gunshot-like sounds and orchestral arrangements, “Peel” addresses Tang’s experience of an abusive relationship. And it begins and ends with water, a metaphor for cleansing but also a brilliant expansion of Tang’s range of motion. The falling droplets reach a radius of five feet around her. We are reminded of Beyonce’s 2016 Black Entertainment Television Awards performance of “Freedom.”
Tang also appears in “Bone Worriers,” choreographed by Katie Faulkner, with stunning projections by Michael St. Claire. With seven female dancers, millennial pink geometric block stage design, and images of cervical cells, the piece announces itself as female. It begins with Saabirah Faatimah, a dancer with U.C. Berkeley’s first Majorette dance team, standing still and alone onstage as a video of her moving body is projected onto her.
When the projection doesn’t quite line up with the contours of her body, the effect is unconvincing. When it works, it’s jaw-dropping. The projection of the dancer’s hands on top of hers, below hers, around hers, holding hers, confuse us so that we don’t know where she ends and where she begins. Faatimah is joined by six other female dancers in a piece that feels both familiar and horrific. With its fierceness and vulnerability, “Bone Worriers” ties this evening together.
“Berkeley Dance Project 2018” choreography by Katie Faulkner, James Graham, Madeline Aragon, and Hillary Tang, at The Playhouse, University of California, Berkeley, through Saturday, February 24, 2018. Info: tdps.berkeley.edu
Performers: Michale Curtis, Kyra Katagi, Andrew Hendrickson, Mi Le, Katie O’Connor, Madeline Aragon, Bruna Gill, Hillary Tang, Louisa Belian, Saabirah Faatimah, Rosalind Hsu, Stella Ji, Melissa Sherman-Bennett, and Victoria Marie Yeh.
Svea Vikander hosts ART CRUSH (KALX90.7 FM), where she develops very public public radio crushes on Bay Area artists. With an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, she provides remote coaching to creative people across North America. Find her on twitter @sveavikander or at sveavikander.com.