“My career has been a quest, a search for roots,” the narrator says, his voice filling the auditorium with the words of the dance pioneer Pearl Primus to begin “Walking with Pearl,” the first dance of the show.
Against an orange backdrop, reminiscent of the opening shot of “The Lion King,” the room fills with the sleep-inducing sounds of nature, the narrator and eventually a harp.
The dancers — all adorning orange suits — perform different movements. Yet, somehow, the Zodiaque Dance Company successfully makes these varying moves feel synchronous.
Zodiaque made its return to in-person performances in UB’s Center for the Arts this weekend, performing three shows from Oct. 16-17. The show was split in two acts between the CFA Drama Theatre [Act 1] and the CFA Mainstage Theatre [Act 2] and consisted of nine separate performances.
This was the company’s first in-person show since March 2020, so the group was eager to return to the stage after conducting its practices over Zoom for the past year. Although attendees and performers alike were required to wear masks, Kerry Ring, Zodiaque’s artistic director, described a feeling of accomplishment for the group as a whole, as they were unbothered by the trivial difficulties of wearing a cloth face covering.
“This semester is in some ways a celebration, because we do not have barriers, we are able to touch dancers,” Ring said. “Although we are still masked, we are in a much more familiar situation where we have audience members participating, and we are able to be in a space together without that distance.”
For students like Kyle Kerschner, a senior business administration and dance major, being able to perform in front of a live audience is a luxury that has been greatly missed.
“It’s been this big shift back and forth but we’re very excited because there’s really nothing like dancing live, and that’s the reason a lot of us are dancing,” Kerschner said. “The feeling of being on stage with each other in the community, the closely knit bond between us and that extra drive. It’s almost indescribable.”
For others, like sophomore dance major Sophia Fino, the show marked their first-ever live, in-person performance at UB.
“It was really hard [last year] because we were completely virtual and remote, dancing in our bedrooms and dorm rooms,” Fino said. “So it’s just like a whole different world this year.”
Auditions began just three days into the semester for the company’s 47th fall concert. Once the dust settled, 25 members were selected to partake and thus began the tireless ordeal of mastering the choreography in less than two months. The company met on average four times per week, with each dancer responsible for three performances.
The second performance, “If You Ever Need Me,” opens with another soft line from the narrator, as he beckons attendees to “imagine a night where you can’t sleep.”
Featuring a jazzy piano and a pair of pajama-covered friends, the duo find themselves on a journey spurred by sleep-hindering anxiety.
Anna Boyd, a second-year dance MFA student, choreographed the performance and was forced to adapt her first live show in order to not be hindered by the masks.
“Trying to communicate with the masks on is a little bit weird because I do a lot of jazz musical theater styles that require a lot of storytelling, which usually happens by [showing] the face,” Boyd stated. “So we’ve been focusing a lot on super large body gestures to get the message across. But it’s much easier now to teach in person instead of over Zoom.”
As the pair clutch their pillows for a variety of dances, their pinkish-red pajamas are amplified by the background dancers, all of whom wear black. As they happily celebrate the night, they eventually begin to scurry away so their anxiety-ridden friend can finally rest, before a final pillow-holding bow.
“I would say the theme [of the story] is about sharing your time generously with friends,” Boyd said.
Alissa Dabrowski, a senior theatre performance major, said “If You Ever Need Me, I’m Probably Up” was one of her favorite performances of the day, and was happy with the show’s results.
“It was great to be back,” Dabrowski said. “I’ve been waiting for in-person shows for so long and just the feeling of being surrounded and witnessing their first show back, it’s just a great experience overall.”
Eventually, the first act came to a close with “ki/net/ik,” a fast paced techno-backed performance straight out of the ‘80s, complete with vibrantly colored lights.
Fino, who performed part of this dance, described the futuristic imagery, sounds and robotic movements as a representation of “the potential of what we could become as superhumans, and then diving back into our old selves.”
As dancers began to cover the dark floor, brightly-colored lights and sounds reminiscent of science fiction film soundtracks rev up the red-clad cast, effortlessly flowing along to a drum-heavy breakdance beat, evoking the sounds and feel of tracks like “Mr. Roboto.”
By the end, the music and lights slowed heavily, eliciting memories of “The Matrix” as the dancers slowed down to match the beat before culminating in a freeze finish. As the lights faded like a TV being turned off, a feeling of reality returned as the company gave their bows and head tilts, which was met with cheers from the audience.
After a brief intermission, attendees were directed to the Mainstage Theatre for the second act, with a larger stage paving the way for increasingly grandiose displays.
Act 2 kicked off with easily the show’s most unorthodox performance, “Fleeting and Unfolding.”
Instead of a live performance, this video-based segment featured a montage of shots where the dancers froliced in sand and used their hands and feet to make “Midsommar-esque” designs on the ground as dark music began to play.
From start to finish, it was abundantly clear to the audience that while the different dances had little in common when it came to technique, they all shared a high level of creativity, ensuring constant variety for all in attendance.
“It’s not a narrative that has one storyline being told, but many tiny, different experiences for an audience member, and that provides a great place for dancers to sort of flex their muscles and all the different styles that are provided through these different choreographers,” Ring said. “We want dancers to be versatile in what's being presented and for the audience to also be ready for a versatile experience.”
“Fandango” was easily one of the most thoughtful dances of the night, and represented a trip into surreality, where dark red lights glowed ominously on dancers in the same manner as the cover of Phoebe Bridgers’ latest album, “Punisher.”
Opening with a red-lit solo dancer, the light’s colors varied throughout the symphonic performance, the background frequently changing, highlighting designs similar to playing cards, continuously evolving with the lights and the changing number of dancers, before ending with a singular dancer, just as it started.
But the audience was fooled.
It wasn’t over yet.
The dancers resurfaced, along with the dark red light. The romantic Spanish music perfectly complemented the dancers throughout “Fandango,” but the bright disco-ball led finale ensured a slew of applause and cheers from attendees.
Theo Qu, a senior dance major, performed in “Fandango,” and said he appreciates the hard work and benefits that come with working with such a dedicated team.
“It’s pushing our limits, both mind and body,” Qu said. “It’s a rewarding process because we learn the mindset of the choreographers, and at the same time we get to experience how to take directions on stage, and how to learn materials quickly.
Capping off the second and final act was mainstay “Z’Bows,” an annually performed dance that acts as a show of appreciation to everyone involved in Zodiaque, including performers, choreographers and the audience.
Thomas Ralabate, the previous director and a Zodiaque Dance Company alum from the 1970s, has directed “Z’Bows” for nearly a decade, maintaining the same bows each time, while the performances vary.
“It’s a different piece of music this year because we had copyright problems since we’re streaming too,” Ralabate said. “But it’s a standard bow, and it works year to year, the only thing that changes are the members in the company.”
This year’s edition was lit by a gleaming disco ball as the dancers made their final movements. As synths and bass-drops roared across the dubstep-heavy techno beat, the group felt more together than ever as they happily provided their final dance of the show before bowing to a nearly minute-long standing ovation.
When the show finished, the audience was let out into the CFA Atrium, where they met the dancers post-show to congratulate them, some as family and others as friends.
“It always is a relief that we went through it in a healthy, safe way with no injuries and to have great crowds,” Ring said after the final show. “It was such a wonderful energy throughout the whole weekend. People were excited to have live performances back, so we felt it both sitting in the audience, and backstage.”
Alex Falter is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.