Identity, nature intertwine in 2017’s Berkeley Dance Project

Lianne Frick/Staff

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Rhythmic breathing and organic movement were central to every piece in this year’s Berkeley Dance Project performance. Berkeley Dance Project is a yearly production put on by the department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, or TDPS, in which pieces choreographed by students and faculty are performed by students. Influences of modern art and performance art, as well as of theater, made the show entirely different from any of the usual campus dance performances.

The first piece, “Blahh!,” was a solo performance choreographed by TDPS student Angela Corley. It’s described as a subversion of dichotomies, which it achieved nominally and not always in the most compelling fashion. The piece captured an adolescent tone through choreography that felt like a calculated frenzy, with movements that often seemed either arbitrary or only motivated by momentum. The essence of adolescence is over-thinking something and then acting on a whim, and “Blahh!” certainly felt as though its choreography did the same. While intriguing, this piece communicated something off-target from its goal.

Energy was high, visceral and powerful in Krista DeNio’s “Network,” the second piece of the show. Throughout “Network,” the collective expanded out to make best use of the vast stage space and returned inward for community and strength.

The dancers’ vulnerability in “Network” was impactful. The piece was powerful, its thematics fraught. The set for this piece was impressive, featuring hanging neurons that transformed into tree branches, but at times it felt disconnected from the dance itself. A few minutes in, jail-cell walls were lowered with shadowed lighting, and the dancers delivered spoken word monologues.

Aiming to encapsulate survival and incarceration, “Network” mediated themes of nature and defiance. Coping mechanisms, community and confinement were certainly present throughout the performance, which incorporated spoken word and several genres of dance. The dancers’ monologues were deeply affecting and felt very personal. They spoke to institutional oppression, systemic failures and the desire to bond with communities.

It seems that “Network” intended to cultivate empathy and resistance, but if it accomplished this, it did so at the expense of not giving the spoken word stories spaces of their own. By presenting stories of incarceration, immigration, sexuality, identity, gender-based violence and others on top of nature, each got lost in the shuffle. In the context of a piece that includes so many (perhaps too many) overlapping themes, the goal of the piece gets blurred and the individualized narratives don’t get the attention they need and deserve.

“Basura!,” choreographed by TDPS student José Antonio Nuño, was a duet in which dancers interacted with clothing scattered across the stage through movements that juxtaposed sensuality with sexuality in a compelling and joyful way. The piece elicited giggles and smiles from the audience — it was freeing to watch, and it felt like a positive engagement with identity politics.

“Meta Morphic,” the fourth and final piece of the show, choreographed by TDPS alumnus and faculty member James Graham, engaged with nature and the elements. The piece began with striking lighting resembling a sunrise and a soft waterfall flowing onto a cluster of rocks as the dancers emerged in chromatic leotards and baggy pants. Breathy energy flowed throughout the dancers’ graceful and organic movements, which appeared to be both pre-choreographed and improvised.

“Meta Morphic” had an avant garde feel, and its all-female corps evoked femininity in nature and the image of Mother Earth. The collective reverence for Earth and nature was particularly poignant as one of the performances coincided with Earth Day on April 22.

Minimalism in “Meta Morphic” was effective — rarely can thematics be so unclear and so nebulous that they actually achieve the kind of engrossing impact that Graham’s piece did. By freeing itself from any specific goal, “Meta Morphic” opened up to connect with each audience member in varying, though equally dazzling, ways.

Berkeley Dance Project is a unique experience that shares a small but invaluable department with the campus. This year’s pieces were complex and nuanced and offered thoughtful reflections on art, nature, the meeting of personal and political and performance and dance themselves.

Berkeley Dance Project will show at Zellerbach Playhouse on April 27, April 28 and April 29 at 8 p.m.

Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].

In a previous version of this article, choreographer Krista DeNio was incorrectly listed as Krista DeNiro.