I am delighted to have been at OSU for the occasion of the department’s 50th birthday, and their Big 5-OH showing. Congratulations to whoever came up with that particular title, and the tagline: “…throwing our weight around for 50 years…”* I’ve always appreciated a really nuanced pun, and this big ten university dance department really does know how to throw it’s weight around, and how to stand up for itself, as the four dance pieces on tonight’s program demonstrate.**
The pieces are neatly tied together on the theme of Rudolf Laban’s principles of movement analysis: space, weight, time, and flow. The OSU Dance Department has been a home to Laban’s theories for many years, and when the vast repository of scores and documents previously held by the Dance Notation Bureau were orphaned, OSU’s archive reached out to shelter them under its expansive wings, turning the university into one of the foremost locations in the world for Laban-based research. Projecting scores onto the theater floor was an inspired touch – an invitation to literally get up and walk through pieces – a tool that I hope gets used with the next class of analysis students!
On my way into the theater I look through the archival display, lovingly crafted by Chris Summers. Here the department’s capacity to make art out of history and history through art is woven together in a compelling and accessible format. I pass the department chair, who pulls me in to look at a yellowing list of department alums from the year I was born. “This is so important!” She tells me, and I feel our collective pride in where we’ve come from and what we have done with dance – and what we’re going to do.
The space section of the evening is taken on by Susan Petry in her work Trace, and quite frankly I could have sat and watched its introduction all evening and still gone home satisfied. This is the first work I’ve seen in the Barnett Theater since it was reconfigured in the round, and the cast is clearly hungry for every extra inch of room the new layout affords them—they reach, roll, leap and dive through movement that stretches out to early modernism, but is still totally supported by the dancer’s conviction, and the starkly contemporary lighting design by Dave Covey. The formations of this work are its triumph: the dancers spiral in and through each other, knock each other out of place, bind and unravel, find and re-find clarity… even more astonishing is the humanity with which they achieve such calculated precision, causing me more than once to hold my breath, or double take, or even spontaneously applaud as complexity flourishes unexpectedly from chaos. I loved space. I just wanted to give it more time.
Time, thankfully, I had in abundance thanks to Daniel Robert’s work Nomadic Drift, which followed in the evening. Robert’s desert is a harsh space, but a rich one, incorporating the tectonic shift and grind of mountains wearing down, and the explosive bloom of day-flowering vegetation, the scurry and calculated mastery of survival. The dancers are at home in this landscape, and once again the virtuosity that could easily have been clinical is instead empathetic and full of life. The role-reversing foot-to-foot duet that marks time at the beginning of the work is as delicate as glass, and as certain as diamond. A later trio with the theme of diving through is gigglingly playful, while the central solo by Sydney Samson is as crisp and clear in the silence as a shadow carving through the sunrise. The Cunningham-based techniques in the piece feel at home in the atmosphere of the past, but this work is a showcase of all that the dancers in this department can do right here in the now.
Of all the choreographers commissioned for this anniversary show, it is Eddie Taketa who seems to have most fully grasped the brief that tonight is a birthday party. Kipuka is a flat out romp through jazz and funk, the dancers smiling and wheeling, and having what is clearly a wonderful time. If you weren’t looking carefully you might get caught up in the celebration and miss some of the sophistication of flow within the work, which would be a shame when this dynamic is so intelligently explored. Watch Alizé Raptou as she whips and spins across the floor, then breaks on a dime to turn back the other way, seemingly pulling momentum out of thin air. Watch a trio of dancers throw and catch each other across the space, moving with gravity but never allowing it to pull them even a hair out of rhythm with their partnership. This is not flow that pulls you on uncontrollably, this is flow taken up and mastered as a way of getting you exactly where you want to go. What is hip? This is.
It seems trite to say that a piece on theme of weight makes an impact, but that is without a doubt what Lush Departures by Crystal Perkins does: slamming a foot decisively down in the space and yelling “here we are, this is what we can do, and no-one can stop us.” Weight is a springboard that lets the dancers fly and rebound, their communal energy spiraling up and out and all through the space. Perkins has clearly made this piece with a lot of love for the department she called home as an MFA student, and which now celebrates her as a faculty member. Alumni photos hang like a benediction over the dancers, and a central section of the work uses archived sound of Vera J. Blaine coaching a past class of dancers in lightness. As we hear Blaine’s voice and see the cast embody her exploration we realize that we are seeing time: the innovation that becomes tradition that becomes innovation reworked again. It is a statement of past and future, reverence and pride, and fills me with hope as I step out and leave into the ongoing dance.
Happy birthday OSU Dance, here’s to many more years.
* I hear it was Susan Petry, which doesn’t surprise me at all.
**A fifth work Well of Pearls took place as part of the celebrations in another theater, but I was unfortunately unable to attend.