The UB dance company Zodiaque ushered in its 49th fall season this weekend with a showcase that was as shocking as it was significant.
The dancers never failed to keep the audience guessing with an unpredictable array of dances across various styles. One moment, the audience was entranced by the story of a witch hunt, and the next, they found themselves engrossed in a burlesque-inspired number straight from the mind of renowned choreographer Bob Fosse.
Keeping the dances fresh by exploring everything from onscreen video components to the beat of Nigerian congo drums, Zodiaque demonstrated loyalty to a core mantra of the UB Department of Dance: “versatility matters.”
The show began with “double, double, toil and trouble” as the dancers ran around stage, motioned their arms as if they were casting spells, and gathered around an altar. They crawled around on the floor and danced to an eerie spoken word about warming oneself in the fire they were to be burned in. This thought-provoking witch hunt ended with the sound of a match being blown out.
From there, the audience was plunged into choreographer Kerry Ring’s “Forging,” which saw dancers emerge in fiery red-orange costumes. They hung from, posed on and danced along a metal structure of rails with the skillfulness of acrobats and the confident ease of a child on the monkey bars.
“The inspiration was to create a series of pictures. We keep saying that our bodies are the art inside of that metal frame,” Ring explained. “So it was really about thinking of ourselves as, like, tubes of paint, or pieces of sculpture, that would fill in that frame.”
The audience reacted as soon as the dancers came out — but the tricks and flare weren’t the only thing that caught their eye.
“There’s a guy!” one audience member exclaimed.
Zodiaque is not a female-only company. But up until this showcase, the company hadn’t exactly been packed with male dancers. This season, the company welcomed many male dancers, and Ring, the company’s artistic director, was more than jazzed.
“We have waves of generations of Zodiaque that do not have the male presence,” Ring said “We’re really happy to have dancers that are able to join the company and stay committed to a dance major. It just opens up more possibilities.”
Ring saw the incorporation of male talent as vital to the company’s goal of fostering diversity, a goal that’s sometimes difficult to reach.
“Obviously, we're at a disadvantage in the world of dance because our culture really does not support male dancers. I wanna blame it on society, I really do,” Ring said. “We want to diversify. We want to have lots of bodies, lots of different perspectives on stage. But we only have access to who comes through our doors.”
Kenny Harrison, a junior dance major featured in Ring’s piece, wasn’t a part of the showcase and, in general, isn’t a member of the company. But due to another male dancer’s unforeseen injury, Harrison was asked to step in after catching Ring’s eye in technique class.
“It was about three or four days. It was Thursday to Sunday rehearsals. It was pretty swift,” Harrison said. “We got straight into it, right to work. There were no complications. Everyone was helping and understood that I’m just coming in. So that definitely helped me understand the piece, and then we just got it done.”
Act I’s exciting finisher, “Zam Ekpele,” forced the audience into uncharted territory. A loud drum was pounded, sending powder flying across the stage. The dancers chanted, yelled and clanged cow bells, embracing the upbeat energy of the music. Dancers, donning tribal makeup, beat their drums, flipped across the stage and walked on their hands. This, combined with the changing colors of lights and three onstage percussionists, wowed audience members.
Choreographer and MFA student Joshua Ikechukwu received his BA in Nigeria, specializing in choreography and directing. Ikechukwu taught the dancers how to do their face makeup and even joined the dancers onstage as a percussionist.
In this sense, UB’s cultural dance education comes straight from the source. Their utilization of knowledgeable and trained instructors did not go unnoticed by the dancers, who embraced this horizon-expanding learning opportunity.
Kelly Quinn, a junior dance major, has taken African dance classes before and was excited to tackle a different region of the vast continent and its unique style.
“It was eye-opening,” Quinn said. “UB Dance always says versatility matters, and it’s exactly true. I love it.”
“I definitely enjoyed the versatility of this year. From the African to the ballet to the modern,” Harrison said. “It was very diverse this year. I enjoyed the show fully from beginning to end.”
Act II brought more of the beautiful uncertainty that Zodiaque is known for — transporting the audience elsewhere with a jazzy number with hats, gloves and canes thrown from offstage; live piano onstage during a piece choreographed by Urban Bush Women; and a gorgeous technical routine set to a Gershwin composition.
Above all, Zodiaque’s commitment to teaching and spotlighting diverse genres and styles of dance shined throughout the performances.
“It’s really important for the dancers to experience new forms of dance, cultural dance,” Ring said. “It’s also important for our audience to see different forms of dance so that we don’t get stuck in the traditional concepts of what dance is and reinforce the same ideas over and over again. So it’s important on all fronts.”
Alex Novak is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Novak is a senior arts editor at The Spectrum.