Is it possible to give Old Hollywood glamor and serve Puritan realness all at once?
With UB’s Zodiaque Dance Company, nothing is off the table. This past Friday, dance enthusiasts crowded into the Center for the Arts’ Drama Theatre for Zodiaque’s 48th showcase, buzzing with conversation about the dancers they knew, previous performances and what they hoped to experience.
A group of freshmen dance majors huddled outside the doors, excitedly waiting to see their “bigs,” (seniors who mentor the new students) perform. Parents too stood patiently, especially those whose daughters would be graduating soon. Susan Aiken, a dance instructor from Niagara Falls who trained Zodiaque’s Juliana Guiffrida, summed up the audience’s pre-show expectations.
“I can’t wait,” Aiken said. “ I’m open to possibilities and I know it’ll be a great show. It’s always great talent here.”
Backstage, the dancers were feeling the pressure inherent to taking the stage in front of a friendly, but packed house.
“I was super nervous the whole time, like I was gonna pee my pants,” Nina Tucker, a junior dance major, said.
The show opened with a glittering number, “Charisse,” based on the iconic dances of Cyd Charisse that took ‘50’s cinema by storm in her now-ancient MGM films. In many of her original dances, Charrise performs duets with men. A projection, like that of an old-timey movie theater, lights up the sign hanging above the stage, playing the reels of one of Charisse’s films.
Then, the projection fades away into today’s modern world with individual Zodiaque dancers taking the place of their 20th century predecessor. The key difference: no men. The women of Zodiaque dance alone in Charisse’s shoes.
“We were able to recreate a lot of the actual original dances that were performed in the movies, which is how you saw the transition from screen to stage,” Michael Deeb Weaver, choreographer of “Charisse,” said. “I decided to explore how the numbers would stand on their own without a man involved. We have a very pro-feminist, girl-power show this semester. It was the time to highlight what our amazing women students can do in our program.”
For Act I’s next pieces, “Sacred Geometry” and “She is Forevermore,” the Zodiaque dancers leave behind the glitziness and rhinestones of old Hollywood in favor of artistic abstractness and thought-provoking dances that leave the audience to their own devices in regard to meaning.
In “Sacred Geometry,” the dancers explore the entirety of the space, venturing out into the audience, individually lit up one at a time by spotlights. Then, they come together on the main stage before dispersing once more to their original locations throughout the theatre.
“She is Forevermore” tangles the dancers in a massive cocoon by innovative use of an almost comically gigantic bed sheet.
The finale of Act I, “Overload” transported the audience to a cold, factory-like setting where machine whirring permeated the silence. The dancers emerged in Hunger Games-esque white uniforms, as smoke filled the stage.
A high-intensity EDM beat pulsed through the theatre as the dancers moved frantically. Like automatons in a factory, the dancers moved in sync with one another until one dancer, then another became overwhelmed by the robotic movements and collapsed to her knees.
“There was a lot of running and falling, a motif of grabbing, choking and breathing. I felt all the dancers in that piece were very powerful,” freshman dance major Nathan Eck said during intermission.
“The meaning of it could be interpreted uniquely by everyone in the audience… There were a couple moments where the dancer in the middle felt dominance over the rest of them, and the rest of them felt lost. So I feel like there’s a motif surrounding the idea of being unable to keep up or unable to hold that position of power.”
The audience resettled into their seats after a short intermission. The flashing theatre lights silenced their chattering and they were greeted with Act II’s shining gem: “Call Your Bluff,” by choreographer Kerry Ring.
The dance kicks off with the performers in brightly colored street clothes. The projector displays videos of the dancers smearing paint on their bodies.
But this colorful sequence soon fades away. The dancers flee offstage and reemerge in frighteningly gloomy Puritan garb: long skirts and pure white dress shirts.
Their dancing is tighter, sharper and more dramatic. Throughout the number, the dancers shake, seize and are left breathless from the crushing weight of this section’s darkness. Ultimately, they strip off their Handmaid’s Tale outfits, freeing themselves from the burden. Now, in only their dance undergarments, they find freedom, once again embracing Gore’s feminist anthem.
“Rights are being potentially taken away from women,” choreographer Kerry Ring said. “And so I really needed to make a piece that was about women having rights, which was symbolized by paint in color, and then having that stripped away.“It’s really just my hope for my students, for my daughters, for myself to really step into the idea of voting, having their voices heard and stepping into the work of that,” Ring continued. “I was really hoping that the idea of disrobing in front of an audience to say that these rules are not to be put on me, but to be empowering those decisions.”
This message resonated strongly with the audience, who left the theatre discussing Roe v. Wade and uprisings in Tehran. The show’s overarching theme — women’s struggles and their paths to finding a voice — sparked a greater discussion.
“‘Call Your Bluff’ is just amazing to watch. I’m not in it, and I choke up every time watching it,” junior dance major Sophia Fino said.
The performance concludes in a show-stopping finale number complete with shadowy figures and jaw-droppingly sequined blue dresses. The Zodiaque dancers dominate the stage, unifying the entire company in one cohesive number.
Before the curtain even began to close, the audience roared with applause. To the dancers, this finale’s significance — and that of the entire production — ran deeper than just the audience’s gratification.
“Zodiaque is just like a huge family. It’s just an experience. We worked super super hard for the show and I’m so excited to put it on for everybody,” senior dance major Rachel Emerling said. “[It] was such a fun experience because I just felt so empowered. The whole dance is just something to experience that I’ve never experienced before.”
The arts desk can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.