From Nov. 6-7, the Center for the Arts hosted UB’s first Emerging Choreographers Showcase performance since before COVID-19.
Held annually since 2015 — with the exception of 2020 — the ECS has been one of UB’s premier dance shows for years, acting as a beacon of creativity for dance majors. Anne Burnridge, chair and associate professor of UB’s Department of Theatre and Dance, highlighted its importance in helping students broaden their creativity in an interview with The Spectrum.
“ECS provides critical opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to develop their artistic voices, experiment with new ideas and reflect on the world around us through the embodied expression of dance,” Burnridge said.
Directed by Joyce Lichtenberger, an adjunct lecturer in the theatre and dance department who has worked at UB for over 30 years, the ECS consists of eight performances (including one dedicated to bows) choreographed by eight dance majors: seven undergraduate students and one graduate student. But the team goes beyond its choreographers, too.
“We work closely with the design tech class at the university, and they have students that are working with [our] students, designing the sound and the lights for each of the pieces that the choreographers are presenting,” Lichtenberger said. “So, it’s really very much a collaboration between the dancers and the designers and choreographers.”
The day before the show, Lichtenberger and the rest of her team were delighted to find out the dancers would not be required to wear masks.
“The team’s department has bent over backwards to help us with a whole testing protocol that we have in place as of our production and so the dancers all tested negative.” Lichtenberger said. “So much of the artistry element is communicated facially so there’s always something lost when you cover the face.”
For choreographers like Theo Qu, a senior dance major, the revelation of a waived mask requirement was just the icing on the cake.
“Due to certain COVID-19 restrictions, the whole process has been rough. It was a lot of pressure for everyone to pull the act together,” Qu said. “We were planning on doing it with masks. But with rapid testing, being able to do it without that was a nice surprise for everyone.”
Audience members were required to wear masks and provide proof of vaccination upon entry to the show.
Instead of formal auditions, ECS has choreographers submit proposals, with the eight best proposals selected to be performed.
Once the dances were finalized, the choreographers chose their dancers and began holding weekly two-hour rehearsal sessions for each performance.
Abby Cass, a second-year MFA student, says that picking dancers was a challenge in itself.
“It was so difficult to choose because I would have been super happy to have any of them,” Cass said. “But the six that I got, I am so grateful for them and they’re the best.”
The show’s first act opened with “Secrecy, Silence and Judgement.” The dark room was enamored by trippy music that would fit seamlessly into any Grateful Dead setlist, before piano notes introduced light.
Each dancer wore grey garments with colorful variations attached to the outfits. Two dancers took the lead, standing ahead of the rest of the group.Eventually, the dancers began dropping to the floor, until only the first duo remained, dancing together before the rest returned to their feet.
As the music sped up, so did the dancers, whose well-choreographed movements eventually turned into them running aggressively in a circle around the stage.
The music changed again, this time to a haunting tune as the lights began to feel like a sunset before ultimately going out.
The next segment, “Opia,” instantly showcased the range of genres covered in ECS thanks to its incredible contrast to its first performance.
Backed by “Someone to Watch Over Me” by Frank Sinatra, “Opia” opened to a dancing couple, as they basked in a spotlight before seamlessly transitioning from the floor to their feet and back in a loving display.
A static noise began to drown out the music as the couple was surrounded by more dancers, with a somber piano replacing Sinatra. The dances grew sporadically, with different duos taking center stage for sections of the dance.
They then collapsed on stage in ritualistic fashion, before surrounding and lifting a single dancer back to their feet.
The dancers returned to their circle, the sound of Sinatra slowly began to refill the theater and the team acted as a back wall to three dancers in the front, who stood together before the lights died again.
Next up was “A Many Layered Thing,” which was choreographed by Cass, this year’s sole graduate student choreographer.
The piece was centered on how experiences shape people over time, how people can alternate between the external and internal world and how relationships are formed.
“I had dancers explore ideas of what it means to discover themselves, like when a baby is first recognizing their hands and their feet and the weight of their head and things like that,” Cass said.
The piece began without music, and attendees were greeted by aone soloist, illuminated by the spotlight, while the rest of the dancers soaked in an eerie red light.
“I wanted my soloist [to be] highlighted, but I didn’t want to not be able to see the other people because they were still important,” Cass said. “Lighting was helping me figure out what I was valuing most as a viewer.”
After a series of frantic movements, the dancers eventually made their way to the floor, bodies intertwined in a pile of limbs, which was one of Cass’s original ideas when making her proposal.
“Layering came into every aspect, in some of the gestures the dancers were doing, in the spatial design,” Cass said. “So, having dancers in a pile on top of each other and kind of slowly peeling back was just something when I was thinking about the piece initially.”
At its core, Cass designed the piece to explore the concept of touch, which she says worked out perfectly for the show. She also detailed the importance of the dancers, particularly since she had them improvise in some cases.
“Had I ended up with different dancers, [it] would have ended up totally different because it was built around what they value as movers, how they learn as learners.”
“Slow Burn,” which has the 1950s written all over it, closed out the first act. That act opened with a single dancer dressed in a black skirt and a top evocative of Mackenzie-Childs. She happily danced to a ‘50s tune before being joined by a greaser-esque man in a bright red jacket for a romantic duet.
Eventually the backdrop turned purple and the audience was greeted by a lone female figure dancing in darkness like a silhouette in a James Bond title sequence.
After many failed attempts to court a dance from the women, the man danced against the entire group of women, toward and away from each other, back and forth, truly evoking the classic musical “West Side Story.”
Eventually, the initial couple returned to focus, sharing a final dance in the vein of the ‘50s inspired musical “Grease” as the other women formed a line in the back.
As the fading lights of “Slow Burn” aptly close out the first act, the darkness continued into the second act’s opening for “The Exiled.”
With little light on stage, a group of dancers quietly roamed the floor, light on their feet, while one hammered the floor with loud tap shoes. His steps quickened before he stopped abruptly and exited.
As one dancer began to dance in cult-esque form, absorbed by the spotlight, she was followed by a whooshing sound as the loud stepper returned. The other dancers began to move like water, taking on new forms in the blink of an eye.
The segment culminated in a rapid dance across the stage before the spotlight landed on one lone dancer, who darkly dropped to the ground.
Qu, who choreographed “The Exiled,” had centered the performance around the effects of quarantining from COVID-19 commentating on the distortion of reality for the many individuals who were stuck inside.
“I wanted to make a piece about a group of people meandering in a space [looking] for open space,” Qu said. “Where there’s no boundary, no time and no purpose.”
One of the more creative challenges of the show was the inability to use copyrighted music, which Qu handled by making his own.
“I ended up making my own music from scratch with sounds and noises that I found on free websites,” Qu said.
Choreographed by Timothy Mayberry and Karrigan Rotella, both senior dance majors, “Inevitably” had one of the rockiest roads to release.
On top of an already hectic schedule since ECS took place a month earlier than normal this year, Mayberry and Rotella were given the opportunity to choreograph their performance after another dancer dropped, which meant they had significantly less time to plan and teach their dance.
“We actually found out we were doing a piece the night before the auditions,” Rotella said. “We just watched people, there was actually an improv section that we based a lot of our picking and choosing off of.”
Months behind the other choreographers — proposals had been due over the summer — the duo felt that working together had many benefits.
“She [Rotella] reached out to all the artists for the copyright provisions of our songs,” Mayberry said. “We fill in each other’s skill gaps, which is a great thing about collaboration.”
Filled with audio snippets discussing death, the themes of “Inevitably” were made instantly apparent in its name and audio.
“We took her [Rotella’s] basic concept, which is the concept of grief, and we let it go as it went,” Mayberry said. “We sort of wanted to create a piece that was evocative of an unbiased, almost nature-minded, perspective on grief and death, and how all things sort of come to an end.”
The concept of death in their dance was much more elastic than the literal term, however.
“It was also in a sense of grieving opportunities, grieving growing out of things, aging, the things that we sort of naturally leave behind, and that it’s okay to grieve those things,” Mayberry said. “It’s not a weak thing. It’s a very natural thing and it deserves to have a space to be honored.”
With all the dancers standing in a soldier-esque formation, bright colors and sporadic movements took center stage, as dancers once again alternated between the floor and their feet, evoking a high level of creativity.
By the end of it, all the pieces had come together like a clock, forming a piece where even the smallest facets had great significance. But amid the music, dances and scenery, there was one audio snippet that seemed to capture the voice of the artists best.
“There are no wrong feelings; there may be wrong actions in the sense of actions contrary to the rules of human communication, but the way you feel toward other people’s loving, hating etc. — there aren’t any wrong feelings,” the disembodied voice read.
The ECS’s final performance brought out one of the show’s most modern dances in, “Your Way.”
As the dancers took to the pitch black stage, they were illuminated by red lights. As the backdrop turned red, the dancers’ silhouettes moved in a fashion akin to the introduction of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
As the lights returned, the dancers closed out their time with carefully selected movements that showed just how much work was put in by both the choreographers and the dancers.
Acting as an epilogue, “Bows — Choreographers & Dancers” showcased everyone involved with production, closing out the show in a classy fashion.
After the show, attendees, like junior linguistics major Eric Cald, were in high spirits as they waited to congratulate the performers and choreographers for their works.
“I found it really engaging,” Cald said. “I thought all the different stories were very interesting and engaging.”
For Mayberry, the show was a great way to celebrate senior year. He recalled memories of dancing as a freshman under choreographer Ginger Paige, before choreographing “Inevitably” as a senior.
“It [Mayberry’s first show] was like a rite of passage for me, it was my first ever college show,” Mayberry said. “It was full circle being able to create that moment, as a senior, like Ginger did for me.”
Alex Falter is the senior arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com