"Digging Deep" into the Natural and Social Networks with Berkeley Dance Project 2017

 Photo: Andrew Weeks

Photo: Andrew Weeks

“Digging Deep” was the theme of this year’s Berkeley Dance Project, which featured choreography by Krista DeNio, artistic director of Moving Ground; James Graham, artistic director of the San Francisco-based James Graham Dance Company; and two students from UC Berkeley’s Theater Dance Performance Studies Department, Angela Corley and José Antonio Nuño. Composed of four pieces, each piece “dug deep” into the intricate systems that connect us with one another and with nature and explored binaries such as continuity and discontinuity, silence and action, unity and chaos, and coherence and individuality.

 Photo: Andrew Weeks

Photo: Andrew Weeks

Choreographed by Krista DeNio, “Network” captured the Berkeley spirit of social justice, as the piece shared stories of incarceration and social oppression that were collected from the cast’s personal stories and interviews. The piece showed how we can overcome various forms of social oppression if we could all collaborate. The piece started with dancers lying on the ground in four separate groups, entangled with one another. Then came their moment of awakening, which started with their minimal and serpentine motions that gradually grew larger. Eventually, the dancers came together in one diagonal line across the stage and started to dance in coherence. The models of the massive nerve cells hanging from the top of the stage created an ambiance on stage which made the dancers’ interaction reminiscent of the human nervous system. Just as the nervous system of humans requires the harmonious cooperation of each nerve cell to convey and process a message, the choreography of the dance indicate that the dancer’s awakening against the social restrictions necessitated them to collaborate and dance together.

Later in the piece, the dancers showed what might disrupt this unity and cause the network to fall apart. The installation of the bars from the ceiling represented the social restrictions and judgments that incarcerated the dancers behind the bars. Yet, the dancers overcame these oppressive forces by breaking the fourth wall and sharing their stories of oppression and discrimination with their audience, and thus, inviting them to collaborate. The piece conveyed the message that only when we all listen to one another, we can gain the power to break the silence and become aware of the artificiality of the social expectations. Only when we act together, we can break those biases that cause disruptions in our otherwise perfectly harmonious and natural lives, in unity with that of nature.

 Photo: Andrew Weeks

Photo: Andrew Weeks

Choreographed by James Graham, “Meta Morphic” was the final performance of the show, which ended the show at a climax. One may feel compelled to question the artistic decision behind the unconventional spelling of “Meta Morphic” as opposed to “metamorphic.” The separation of the roots puts emphasis on each part. While the root “meta” connects back to the general theme of “Digging Deep” of the year, the Greek root of “morph,” meaning shape, emphasizes the choreography of the dance. One may even argue that the space between the two roots refers to the the absence of music that was overcome by the dancers’ catchphrases that eventually became the undertone of the piece. The absence of music in the piece emphasized the rhythmicality of the dancers’ movements and rendered them even more compelling.

The careful positioning of the dancers at the beginning of the piece created a juxtaposition between careful balance and stability, as the dancers had all their weight on one foot, but maintained a sense of connectivity with their other foot pointed on a small stone on the ground. The lighting of the stage from behind, which highlighted the contours of the dancers’ silhouettes, made the scenery even more powerful. As the dance progressed, the dancers lost some of their clothing, which they wore above their leotards. The colors of their blue, brown and red leotards paralleled the elements of Water, Air, Earth and Fire that the dancers represented. Just as these four different elements exist in unity in nature, the dancers danced in a systematized pattern, which at times purposefully collapsed.

Throughout the piece, individual dancers broke away from the group and performed their individual moves and catchphrases. Near the end, one dancer in particular was “brave” enough to leave her group behind and stepped on the pile of stones, despite the pleas of the other dancers for her to come back. A surprising end to the piece was when real water started to pour from the top of the stage, under which the dancer got completely soaked and danced as if enjoying herself. The dancer in her blue leotard, presumably representing the element of Water, embraced the actual matter that she represented. At the end, the piece came full circle, as the other dancers finished the piece in the same position that they started as she continued to dance under pouring water. The conventional understanding of water as a purifying matter made the ending of the dance a celebratory scene of the fruits of nature. “Meta Morphic” asserted the individuality of the dancers and showed how one can still maintain her individuality while being part of a coherent whole.

 Photo: Andrew Weeks

Photo: Andrew Weeks

Berkeley Dance Project 2017 is the product of a highly collaborative work between students and Bay area choreographers, raising various social issues and encouraging the audience to “dig deeper” into artificial norms. With its innovative choreography, talented dancers, artistic stage-design, and committed crew, Berkeley Dance Project 2017 surpasses the expectations from a student production and presents a thought-provoking social commentary through dance.

Berkeley Dance Project 2017 will continue to be performed over this weekend, during April 20-29 at Zellerbach Playhouse.