Physical Graffiti Spells Out Undergrad Artistry
By Julia Clausen
Physical Graffiti 2017 featured 13 pieces of undergraduate choreography in an impressive variety of styles, from contemporary ballet to tap and nearly everything in-between.
Unlike typical graduate student or faculty choreography, each number of Physical Graffiti must be between four and six minutes in length. The show put together feels like a series of appetizers, giving the audience a small taste of an idea and then moving onto another piece with a completely new flavor.
And this show certainly offered an impressive variety of flavors. Showcases made entirely of undergraduate choreography can sometimes lack diversity; in the past, Physical Graffiti has consisted of one after another of the same sad songs with flowing and desperate movements performed by dancers in dresses. However, this year’s show was very well-rounded. No two pieces were related — in style, theme, costume, or otherwise — making the show both intriguing and entertaining.
In the opening number, “The Tempest” by Kimberly Joyce, dancers floated and swirled across the stage en pointe to the sounds of rain, while in “Cadena” by Simon Harrison, tappers creatively combined the sounds of their shoes with the clinking of chains in their hands, all to the Latin rhythms of the music. Martha Gray’s piece “Cripple Wall,” which tells a vaguely political star-crossed lovers story, might have been the closest to the sad and flowy dances of previous years, but the choreography felt new and purposeful and the performances of the two leads Ongelle Johnson and Andre Rivera were very moving.
Any student can request to choreograph a piece for Physical Graffiti, but after a few weeks, the faculty advisors for the show hold a “piece audition” in which the choreographers present the work they have completed so far. The faculty then choose the lineup from that audition, often cutting several entries in order to maintain the quality and balance of the show as a whole. However, this year, all 13 entries were kept.
Of course, this does not mean that every piece was sensational. While some, such as “Best in Show,” a laugh-out-loud comedic piece by Emily Guerard and the sad-but-beautiful “falling” by Meg Iwama, which featured an ethereal stream of falling paper snow, were clear crowd favorites, others, such as “Divide” by Jade Cole or “The Women of Azerbaijan,” while polished and complex, lacked the thematic force and coherent artistic vision of the stronger pieces.
Yet even so, no performance was a weak link or seemed out of place. Rather, some felt more finished, and others were a work in progress — just the beginning of an idea which the choreographer wanted to explore.
And that really is the spirit of Physical Graffiti. Students are encouraged to branch out and explore new choreographic ideas without knowing for certain whether or not those ideas will work. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, and other times they proved they could work well if developed a little further.
For instance, “Acts of Anatomy” by Chelsea Freeman featured three couples in matching colors who did not so much dance together as dance in unison. The three girls mirrored the three guys so that, whatever happened to one member of a couple, often happened to the other, but not always. There was a kind of preface in which the dancers moved between long hanging strips of beige fabric to the sounds of heartbeats. Then suddenly the fabric and the backdrop lifted to reveal two live musicians who sang an acoustic version of Haddaway’s 1993 hit song “What Is Love.” During this second portion, a distinction between each of the couples began to appear. Two dancers in tan seemed more young and innocent, while the couple in gray had a hint of bitterness and the couple in red a bit of sorrow. Perhaps they were supposed to each represent a different stage of a relationship, but the piece ended before any. clear story or motif could develop.
Besides the student choreography, the primarily undergraduate lighting design team also showed their strength, adding a unique depth and color to each piece with a skill not always apparent at an undergraduate show. One piece in particular, “On Edge” by Samantha Lin, offered an incredible light show that made the audience audibly gasp. Dancers wore tattered clothes and danced sharp and frenzied movements with a vaguely post-apocalyptic undertone to dubstep-style music, but the lighting is what made the piece come alive. From strobe lights to an eerie green “god light” from upstage to fading sunset lighting from the wings, lighting designer Gabriell Smith included everything and carefully coordinated all of it to the swells and harsh beats of the music.
The UCI Dance Department clearly encourages and equips students to take bold risks, and it pays off. Whether a dancer or a choreographer or a lighting designer, all of these young artists brought their A-game for this year’s Physical Graffiti, and it made for a very enjoyable show.