Berkeley Dance Project showcases empowering physical movement in ‘The Body Remembers’

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The Berkeley Dance Project premiered “The Body Remembers,” directed by Joe Goode, at Zellerbach Playhouse on Thursday. All productions by the Berkeley Dance Project are run by students, and as the host of the night stated, “Our shows are places to learn.”

In honor of the 50th anniversary of UC Berkeley’s theater, dance and performance studies program, or TDPS, the performers of the night wanted to give special recognition to the Ohlone people, the indigenous population of Berkeley, who “remained in relationship with this land through song and dance” long before UC Berkeley was founded, as the program stated.

The first piece of the night, called “the undefended heart,” was illuminated by an orange square on the floor, light shining down from the ceiling to cast a warm copper glow onto the dancers. Choreographed by the four dancers, Madeline Aragon, Brandon Davis, Bruna Gill and Aldair Rivera, in collaboration with Goode, the piece featured the quartet sitting on chairs at the edge of the square, using their bodies and voices in a variety of creative ways to convey themes of imperfection and feeling less than worthy.

As they moved onto the mat, their movements were often made in unison, twirling together to show support, even through melancholic moments. With verbal exclamations of “I’m all right,” “I’m OK” and “I’m fine” toward the climax of the dance, the dancers revealed one of the core themes: Being honest with yourself as well as those around you.

One musical number was a bit peculiar — in a rather endearing way. Gill described the feeling of power through sexual and physical liberation, singing about “eating strawberry ice cream in the nude while someone nearby is watching.” The dancers had a solid rapport onstage, especially as they moved into the more positivity-driven portion of the end of the production, when self-confidence shines through and power is regained in spirit.

The next installment, choreographed by Katie O’Connor, was a duet between Jeremy Brooks and Mi Le called “Spilt Milk.” The theme of growth ran heavy through the duo’s movements, constantly rising vertically to show their flowering. Le rocked her arms as if holding a child, and Brooks bounced up and down as if rocking a child to bed, indicating a piece about nursing a child into the world.

A larger group of dancers performed “Groundworks Huichin: from Strawberry Creek to Shell Mounds,” choreographed by Rulan Tangen. Backlit by a blue screen, the squatting silhouettes of performers appeared onstage as if in prayer. Integrating intense breaths as part of the music and earthly costumes to set the organic mood, visuals of local nature spots such as Strawberry Creek moved across the screen.

The total performance was an homage to the original indigenous inhabitants of UC Berkeley’s land, making a bold comparison between the peaceful nature that once was and the police sirens that now fill the silence as the dancers ran chaotically in place. A voice narrating the performance spoke of the disruption happening in West Berkeley to indigenous sites — between remains being used to pave streets and people claiming relics to use as personal trophies.

The piece ended in a powerful moment when each dancer said what they intended to bring to the land that was “given to us to take care of.” Sentiments of open-mindedness and recognition and acknowledgment of art and more were offered as promises to the Ohlone people.

The final piece of the night, choreographed by Latanya D. Tigner, was a tribute to Ruth Beckford, featuring clips of an interview conducted in 1995. Beckford was the first Black member of the Orchesis dance group here in Berkeley — the group that brought the modern dance movement to the UC Berkeley campus. This dance, called “Fiercely Unbothered,” featured bright-colored costumes amid serious commentary about the Black experience in American universities.

The Berkeley Dance Project, under TDPS, succeeded in highlighting the immense emotion in the movement of these dancers, whether through facial expression, setting or ambient sound. If there’s anything that the last 50 years have shown, it’s that the art of expression will never be lost.

“The Body Remembers” is showing at Zellerbach Playhouse until March 2.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.