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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Dance ensemble encounters tradition

At first we think there won’t be enough chairs. They have us lined up against curtained walls and several people seem to be scoping out the few remaining seats in the corner, or the floor itself. At once, the dancers enter at a run, whisking the curtains back as they go to reveal abundant seating for all. The lights dim to a single beacon, a ghost light, Kristen Moreland ’12 of the Grinnell College Dance Ensemble tells us. The surprises have just begun.

“tRADitions + enCOUNTers,” directed by Celeste Miller, Theater and Dance, and performed by the Dance Ensemble and several guest performers and groups, opened on Friday, Dec. 2. With a focus on how the habits of daily life and learned movement practices come together, the piece included—and put in conversation— a massive spectrum of movement forms and traditions. Broadly, the show progressed through a kind of conversational rhythm wherein distinctly modern and collaborative pieces, performed and developed by the ensemble, alternated with guest performances by groups such as indepenDANCE (hip-hop), Aja Naachle (Bollywood) and Legacia Latino (Contemporary Salsa).

The project originated in a specific kind of openness and flexibility, which profoundly impacted the final production.

“Well we started with the title, “Traditions and Encounters”, which actually Shawn Womack, the previous director, had come up with in the spring semester of last year,” Moreland said. “We all kind of started together because Celeste was new. So we had this new group, this new title and we began to just explore the idea of tradition. We started with Javanese dance.”

The Ensemble’s movement-based reflection on traditional Javanese dance focused on the quotidian actions of dressing in traditional costume before moving into the dance itself. Enter Val Vetter, College Dean and Javanese Dance instructor, to the sounds of live Gamalan directed by Professor Roger Vetter, Music. In her collaborative role with the Ensemble, Vetter brought a wealth of knowledge about Javanese dance as well as a playfulness, which, in the performance, resulted in a deliberate troubling of gender roles. Adelle Yin ’12 and Moreland performed two variations of “strong-male” Javanese dance, featuring impressive balances, extensions and the iconic bend of the wrist.

Further engaging with and troubling dance traditions, this time by blurring the line between ‘intentional’ choreographed movement and more improvisational movement, the Ensemble requested audience participation in the form of notes tossed into a ‘growling bowl.’ At various points throughout the show, and with sound effects from off-stage, the Ensemble brought forth the growling bowl and read aloud the various contributions from which they improvised movement.

“I think especially with the theme of tradition it makes sense to include a wide variety of people,” Moreland said.

Even in the choreographed work, collaboration was key.

“I invited the dancers to be investigators with me in terms of dance outside of our circle,” Miller said.

From these investigation arose not just the participates of groups like indepenDANCE, but also a variety of spoken word pieces which narrated the dancer’s choreographed work.

“The dancers interviewed family and friends,” Miller said, “and the spoken word was drawn from excerpts of these interviews. I thought that was beautiful because we got to see different family and cultural traditions.”

Indeed, several of the most expressive and intimate moments in the performance relayed stories from the dancers’ own lives. Moreland spoke of the winter tradition of Santa Lucia in her family, Yin of the blending of traditions that all relationships require.

Other poignant moments were almost silent. In the later half of the performance, the members of the dance ensemble rode into the black box theater on a few remaining campus bikes. They made a slow circle accompanied by the soft ringing of bike bells, the clicking of gears, and were gone. It was at moments like these that the show was most successful—insightful as a result of its openness and possessed of something deeply relevant to say.
In a piece that ranged from an exuberant shout to near whisper, it was the inclusion of so many distinct and honed voices that lent such cohesion to this encounter.

The Grinnell College Dance Ensemble is open to all artists with a commitment to expression through intentional movement. Next semester’s projects include “Now You See Me”, an exploration of dance and activism. The first workshop will be held on Jan. 25 at 4:30 p.m. in the Bucksbaum Dance Studio.

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