By Julia Clausen
Dance Escape 2017, the spring quarter UCI Dance Department showcase of graduate student choreography, was a quiet affair. Each dance demonstrated strong technique and choreographic skill, but offered little which the audience did not already expect to see. The show felt very safe; lovely, but safe.
The music tended to be very simple, often sounding more like the white noises of nature, as is popular to use in the contemporary dance world, rather than songs with melodies. In fact, the atmospheric (and somewhat generic) music of composer and dance accompanist Michael Wall, who has become very popular among student choreographers because his online project provides license-free music for dancers, appeared in nearly half of the show.
The show featured an original work in the traditional Indian Bharatanatyam style by Sukanya Kumar, whose performance at the East Meets West festival in the fall dazzled with lightning-fast footwork and stylized swirling across the stage. But Kumar’s piece for Dance Escape was much subtler. The music was pleasant and sweet, and the dance focused thematically on the shy expression of a woman’s inner thoughts.
Often, the movements of the dances were built around a few repeated phrases which were then repeated and altered to create new ones — a classic technique for young choreographers. For instance, the opening number “Further, See Further, To See Further” by Chelsea Asman began with four dancers in four panels of light, each with a different movement set. Then, when the dancers switched places, they also exchanged movement.
In general, the choreography seemed tentatively experimental, as if these young choreographers wanted to stretch their wings without actually flying. Multiple contemporary works, such as “Renewable Kinetics” by Sarina Ramirez-Ortiz and “I Think… the Gray Skies Make Me Happy” by Kira Bessey explored partner work with a slow and breathy style. The choreographers employed a fair amount of enjoyable contrast — sharp with smooth or fast with slow — so that their pieces were interesting to watch, but they engaged the audience’s curiosity rather than their hearts.
Even a contemporary ballet piece, rather menacingly called “Rise of the Machines” by Heather Eilerts, had none of the threat or tension that its title implied. Instead, it seemed to be more of an academic exercise in mechanical movement, and had almost no narrative.
Similarly, the piece “Sold” by Mel Lastrina — a group of five dancers in ratty t-shirts set to the sounds of an auction — apparently dealt with some form of human trafficking or commodifying human bodies in a more abstract way. Such a subject had the potential to move and challenge the audience, but the lack of clear narrative and lack of variety in the movement underwhelmed.
The only piece with a clearly fleshed-out narrative was “Shikata Ga Nai” by Vanessa Kanamoto, a solo performance to an audio recording of the personal testimony of a Japanese American woman whose family was victim to the internment camps during the Second World War. The movements were a combination of dance and repeated, speech-suggestive gestures. Though the sound and movement quality of the piece was still very gentle, it had the narrative force of painful and true events behind it. That history, combined with the obvious skill of both the choreographer and the dancer, made “Shikata Ga Nai” quietly moving.
Overall, Dance Escape provided a fine example of the quality of the education dancers at UCI receive, but the selection of pieces for the evening each felt more like mimicry of choreographic templates than original work.