Dancing Across Campus with Drexel Dance Ensemble and FreshDance Sites of Dance

by Olivia Wood for The Dance Journal | Photo credits: Johanna Austin

On Sunday, June 6, 2021, I had the immense pleasure of attending Drexel University’s Department of Performing Arts’ production, Sites of Dance. Under the direction of Olive Prince, seven student choreographers created impactful, site-specific pieces that took the audience, in groups, on a tour of the campus and featured original music by Christopher B. Farrell.

Our group began at the Armory, where six dancers performed Aislinn McGhee Hassrick’s piece, “Ying & Yang.” Separated by two lamp posts perched two groups of three dancers, one clad in white, the other in grey. As the audience settled into their viewing positions, the dancers moved subtly. Barely shifting from their starting positions of sitting, lying, or standing on the stairs and benches, the dancers in white softly fluttered their hands. In contrast, one of the dancers in grey sinuously moved through twisted balletic shapes, finally arriving in 5th position, with arms thrown back. Immediately, I was reminded of the widely recognized ballet Swan Lake. From my perspective, this connection was strengthened as the dancers left their perches to dance in groups and then in unison. The Grey Swans moved through long lines but stayed low. They shifted their weight along the ground in a hunter’s crouch, twitched through first position, and grabbed their faces as if startled. While watching the White Swans, I was reminded of my students’ ballet recital, for they danced to classical piano music and rarely moved in ways outside of ballet pedagogy. McGee Hassick’s piece, as suggested by the title, explored the dichotomous relationship between ballet and contemporary movements, darkness and light, innocence and corruption.

The second piece our group attended was danced in the Alumni Garden. Alisia Lipsey aptly titled the dance “Where Growth Happens.” The piece was slow to start. Not a single dancer appeared until a span of two or three minutes had passed. Anticipation, though palpable, was tempered by the gurgling sound of the fountain, the tinkling music, and the chirping of birds. Suddenly, seven dancers raced into the garden, running at full speed in a circle around the paved path, before veering into the border of the garden, where they began shaking tree branches, pushing walls, and hanging on the fence. The circular motif frequently recurred throughout the dance. Lipsey’s choreography featured unison phrases performed in a circle, which emphasized a sense of community. The movement quality was rooted and hinted at influences from Duncan, Horton, Dunham, and Graham. Even as dancers frantically clapped their hands, shook their heads, twirled, and cast their gaze to the sky, their feet seemed deeply grounded. Even as they explored moments of instability, and even as they collapsed into rolls on the ground, the dancers were able to return to a sense of groundedness. Lipsey created a sense of connecting back to the earth, back to the breath, in the face of anxiety and panic.

“Emergence,” a quartet choreographed by Jenna Demer, took us to Lancaster Walk. The dancers took their places in a bed of mulch underneath four trees. Each dancer corresponded to a tree. They wore purple dresses with matching hair ribbons. The sound of Billie Holiday’s voice matched with Farrell’s instrumental music contributed to the piece’s vintage, almost anachronous tone. The soothing music starkly juxtaposed the movement. Independently, the dancers rolled and stumbled on the soft earth. They thrashed arms and legs, tugged at their clothes, ripped through the air. I wondered more than once if the dancers were responding to improvisational prompts. One image that I found particularly striking occurred toward the end of the dance: one of the performers vigorously rubbed her/their lower abdomen as if wanting to dispel something before collapsing. This moment made me curious if Demer sought to draw attention to the current threat to women’s reproductive rights…

We moved on to Hannah Dolen’s piece, “Tenacity,” at the volleyball court. Dolen boasted the largest cast. Ten dancers lay haphazardly in the sand as we viewers took our places. Then, the dancers began quickly changing their positions as if tossing and turning in sleep. They attempted to rise, only to collapse again. The struggle to remain standing and moving forward recurred frequently as a movement motif throughout the piece. Dolen’s choreography built to a pitch as dancers transitioned from linear, almost yogic, movements to sudden falls and writhing articulations of the spine, shoulders, and hips. As the dancers writhed and kicked the sand in the topmost corner of the field, Dolen’s choreography became very reminiscent of the climax of Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. The ending of the dance struck me as just as bleak: the dancers fell to the ground, curled in fetal positions, and let the grains of sand run through their fingertips as if the sands of time had run out.

The next piece, “Obediently Yours,” choreographed by Jacob Wong, brought us to the front of Honors College. The dancers waited in silence as a voice sounded over the speaker, saying, “It is better to have a short life doing what you like than a long life spent in misery.” The beginning of the dance struck me as your stereotypical contemporary choreography: we saw the dancers moving independently of each other, exploring pelvic circles, high legs, spinal curves, inversions…the usual tropes. Wong pushed the envelope by including complete hip hop phrases, during which dancers seemed to come to life, and the piece became more presentational. They smiled, celebrated, clapped, and showcased a myriad of rhythmic skills. This shift in tonality suggested that Wong sought to comment on elitism and whitewashing in dance, a topic I would be interested to see him/them explore again.

 “Ethereal,” choreographed by Maddie Alberici, took place in the community garden. It was pleasant to walk along a shady dirt path lined by dancers clad in yellow rompers. They undulated serenely to the sound of live guitar music. Occasionally, one would break away from the fences and dance in the center of the path before taking another place along the border. As the music built to a lively crescendo, the dancers formed a single line and danced in unison in the center of the path. Alberici choreographed turns and sweeps of arms and legs that evoked images of sunbeams, a lovely way to call in summer.

Finally, the show ended for my group with Janae Kindt’s “On Resisting” at Cherry Street. The four dancers wore the happiest colors seen in the evening: bright pastel shades of lavender, teal, and yellow. Two balanced lithely on the thin fence, and the other two lounged against the wall, just up the block. After a long pause, the dancers at the far end began peeling their way along the wall to join the others. As one dancer snapped her/their fingers, the rest fall into position and begin striding confidently up and down the street. Then they began to skip, chug, and run up and down the pavement before bursting into unison choreography that featured an eclectic, but stimulating, combination of movements seemingly inspired by hip hop, ballet, swing, Vogue, and perhaps even traditional African motifs (Kindt’s choreography called to mind wonderful memories of Sherone Price’s African Dance classes, which I had the privilege to take at the American Dance Festival.) Kindt’s piece was a wonderfully uplifting way to end the show; the audience left with a smile and a heightened desire to raise their voices.

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