Danger on the dancefloor: Abby Z’s dancers push past the safe zone

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal | photo credit Eric Falck

Abby Z and the New Utility presented their hour-long, genre-defying work, abandoned playground, at Bryn Mawr College last weekend. As the audience filtered into the theater, eight performers (seven women and one man) were already warming up. Dressed in yellow athletic shorts, loose shirts, sneakers, and knee-pads, they loosened up by jumping and circling their arms vigorously –  as much shadow boxers as dancers. The onlookers took their seats on risers surrounding a central floor space, like at a sporting event.

As the performers tore into the challenge ahead of them, they were accompanied by their own loud breathing. Booming electronic music broke in occasionally (the score was composed by the multi-faceted artist Raphael Xavier, who was a core member of Philadelphia’s acclaimed hip-hop dance company Rennie Harris Puremovement), but mostly the soundscape consisted of the performers’ stamps, grunts, and squeaking shoes.

abandoned playground employs an original and hair-raising movement vocabulary. It’s an extremely physical work – focused on bodies in motion. The surprise and danger of the piece is established early on when a dancer does a headstand and then falls over flat on her back, smacking hard on the floor. The dancers aggressively throw their bodies around, pushing themselves to the edge of exhaustion. They don’t hide their effort as they turn, punch, kick, and jump relentlessly. They hop and spin on their knees. They call out encouragement to each other from the sidelines: “That’s it,” “Yep,” and “Come on.”

The movement is full of risk. Momentum takes over as the dancers hurl themselves into off-balance phrases. I was reminded of the training discipline of parkour, where, once the runner begins navigating an obstacle course, she has to keep going or she’ll crash. The kinesthetic energy is visceral; consequently, for the audience, the performance is as much a physical experience as a visual one.

Abby Zbikowski, director of Abby Z and the New Utility, is a dance professor at the University of Illinois. She holds an MFA in dance from The Ohio State University, and also has roots in Philadelphia, having earned a BFA from Temple University. She studied at Germaine Acogny’s L’École des Sables in Senegal, and her unique movement vocabulary is informed by African dance forms. She also cites her years practicing tap dance and hip-hop as influences on her approach. The program notes allude to her “punk tactic” of “stripping these [forms] down to their bare bones.”

Zibkowski’s choreography is endlessly inventive. The movement vocabulary is extreme, but it’s also very detailed. This is especially discernible when the dancers come together in pairs or larger groupings and movements that seem out-of-control are actually tightly synchronized. abandoned playground is stripped down but still employs satisfying compositional structures. Overlapping entrances and exits generate a variety of solo, duo, and ensemble sequences. Zibkowski’s work deservedly received the 2017 Juried Bessie Award, which is awarded annually for exceptional achievement by independent dance artists presenting their work in New York City.

Dance concert or sporting event? Either way, it’s a stimulating, albeit punishing, a new frontier. Hopefully, Abby Z and the New Utility won’t keep us waiting too long for the next episode.

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