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Dance Review: Abby Z and the New Utility displays the ecstasy of effort-based dance

Performed in the round, ‘Radioactive Practice’ draws on street dance, contemporary African forms, and martial arts to upend expectations of established dance forms.

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Fiona Lundie defies gravity in Abby Z and the New Utility's "Radioactive Practice," by choreographer Abby Zbikowski. Photo by Maria Baranova.
Fiona Lundie defies gravity in Abby Z and the New Utility’s “Radioactive Practice,” by choreographer Abby Zbikowski. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The audience was abuzz with excitement as they stepped onto the stage of Lincoln Performance Hall on Thursday for the Portland premiere of Radioactive Practice by Abby Z and the New Utility. The unusually creative seating arrangement, inspired by in-the-round seating configurations, was uniquely accomplished with a partially full house, in addition to audience members seated on all three remaining sides of the stage. I sat upstage facing the red auditorium chairs, marveling at the strikingly unusual view that removed any sense of theatre’s traditional fourth wall.

A lively curtain speech by White Bird executive director Graham Cole encouraged the audience to “react as a human to what you see tonight,” and we were cautioned not to be surprised by the lack of music score accompanying much of the dance — a choice made by the dance company’s artistic director to highlight rhythms made by the bodies of the performers. With that, the stage went dark and the dancers entered.

New York City and Columbus-based Abby Z and the New Utility was formed in 2012 by artistic director Abby Zbikowski and dancers Fiona Lundie and Jennifer Meckley. Drawn to experimentation and the act of pushing the body past its perceived natural limits, Zbikowski embarked on a journey to establish a movement style that suited her unique perception of dance and athleticism, along with her multifaceted training in African and Afro-diasporic forms. What resulted in her newest creation is an adaptable and effort-driven performance that welcomes the viewer into a bright utopia of collaboration, while simultaneously exposing them to undertones of disassembly, chaos, and “what falls through the cracks and lives beyond bounds,” according to the choreographer’s program notes.

Dancers airborne in Abby Z and the New Utility’s “Radioactive Practice.” Photo by Maria Baranova.

In stark white stage lighting, dancer Jennifer Meckley seemed to defy gravity in her opening solo, hopping across the stage while flat on her back, before a group piece took to the stage. Here, a distinctly athletic precedent for the rest of the evening was set. A cast of six dancers wearing tennis shoes, t-shirts, and brightly colored sportswear stepped, flat-footed, yet nimble, across the space. With every move, the timing of their feet and breaths aligned to create an inviting rhythm in the silent room. They began to flail, throw, catch, and release, exhibiting wide and low stances to remain grounded — alternating between precarious weight shifts, fast high kicks, or balances on one leg. These hypnotic bursts of energy, punctuated by moments of wind turbine-like momentum from the arms, quickly executed arabesques, and pauses of internal focus, displayed the muscular control and clear intent of the participants. Through the almost immediate sharp exhales and panting, it was evident that the cardiovascular dance had ‘hit the ground running.’ 

Moving through planks, push-ups, high tuck jumps, death drops, turns, and barrel rolls, then imagery of a basketball game, a race, and a strenuous voyage on foot all came to mind. When a dancer crept along the downstage apron of the floor with a hand flicking and curling before joining another for a duet, I was transported to Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch, in which he crawls across the stage with a flashlight in hand. During an unexpected moment of group unison amid the first series of simultaneous solos, duets, and trios, the dancers let out vocalizing grunts and groans, visibly smiling, yet suffering as they became tired. The task-oriented and somber imagery, contrasted with lighter, humorous moments, highlighted the strength of the dancers and made evident their willingness to perform at the upper limits of effort, resistance, and physical capacity.

Benjamin Roach and Fiona Lundie display the power of stamina and muscular control. Photo by Maria Baranova.

“Propulsion is needed. Where we are going can’t help but be attached to where we have been,” continues Zbikowski in the program notes, “To move forward, resistance is necessary and work is relentless. [This] is our way of cross-training for those inevitable combustible circumstances.”

During the evening, the dancers of Abby Z and the New Utility pushed themselves to exhaustion and then past it, egged on not only by their determination, but by the supportive voices of fellow castmates calling from offstage. ”Breathe! Fight! Yes! Let’s go!” they shouted throughout the show, and the movers at the center responded by pulling more energy and willpower from within themselves to complete the grueling dance at hand. Dancer Benjamin Roach exhibited a stunning display of stamina and force in a solo comprised of hip-hop, modern, ballet, street dance, and Afro-diasporic dance techniques. Later in the evening, dancer Mya McLellan garnered loud audience applause upon finishing her solo — one that left her pausing, panting, and struggling to stand between its moves. The dancers gave until they had nothing left to give, both emotionally and physically. They did not fall, but rather threw themselves to the floor, miraculously only making a sound when they chose to add to the rhythm of the scene. Their hair and faces dripped with sweat, voices grunting and grimacing, while their smiles curved upward in ecstasy and their eyes shined with the joy of their hard work and unified expression of community.

Sponsor

All Classical Radio James Depreist

 (l-r) Dancers Jennifer Meckley, Fiona Lundie, and Kashia Kancey in Abby Z and the New Utility’s “Radioactive Practice.” Photo by Ben McKeon.

An ominous quality was added to the performance through a few musical interludes featuring galactic jazz-rock style soundscapes and either red hues or bright flashing lights. This, combined with the breaths of exhausted dancers from behind the on-stage riser seating, signaled to the viewer that a contrast of the bright and hopeful against the labor of tension, desperation, and weight, was at play. After another cacophonous group piece ended in a relieving embrace, the dancers walked away arm in arm as the light faded to dark.

Rooted in the intent to show it all, Abby Z and the New Utility’s Radioactive Practice lifts the veil and exposes a raw, earnest, and layered look at what happens when spiritual determination meets the courageousness of physicality and a willingness to connect with others in a utopian/dystopian atmosphere. Through an understanding of body physics and intimate relationships with rhythm, gravity, space, and matter, the work delivers a narrative that dissects the passage of time, the illusion of control, and the delicious rewards of pure effort.

Tickets to see Radioactive Practice on Saturday, November 18 at 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln Performance Hall are still available for both theatre and auditorium seating on the White Bird website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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