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Conservatory’s fall dance concert plays to something scarier than Halloween

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It’s a chilly Saturday night as people crowd into White Recital Hall for the Fall Dance Concert.

This will be the 42nd performance of the year and, as the nearly full hall indicates, the brisk night air has not deterred anyone from seeing it. By making a request to an usher, one can grab a seat on the upper balcony and see the space in its entirety.

The side walls of the hall are decorated with two abstract sculptures, one a bass clef and the other a treble clef, made of bent sheets of flat steel. The ceiling is a dark blue collection of curved structures with lights, giving the effect of draped cloth. On either side of the balcony are projectors illuminating the closed curtains of the stage with an intricate design of crisscrossing blue lightning bolts. The hall is abuzz with discussion as audience members young and old file in, some holding bouquets of flowers for performers.

The lights go out at 7:36 p.m. and a silence hangs in the air briefly until it’s violently broken by what sounds like giant steel oil drums being hit with rubber mallets. First loud and intense, the gargantuan sound is presented without opening the curtains and serves to make the darkened theater more foreboding.

After a minute of this, the sound dies off and the curtains open to reveal the dancers, clad in tight black outfits and bathed in red and yellow lighting. They are posed to begin the first dance of the night, “Ecifircas” by DeeAnna Hiett.

The music returns less powerfully than before. Hiett chooses to include musical arrangements from the 2006 film “Apocalypto” which is set in 1511 A.D. This musical choice is perfect, as the dance itself is tribal and almost violent in nature. The dancers move in sync, but their movements are a strange combination of ballet and something more primordial. There is grace to it, but the dance also exhibits pressure and strength. Female dancers plié and are lifted by male dancers who stomp to the rhythm of the music.

Hiett chooses selections of music that are loud but not terribly intense. While at first this aesthetic choice seems confusing, it proves brilliant within the first five minutes of the performance. The mad drumming isn’t the only source of intensity. The sound of the dancers’ feet hitting the ground brings a whole new dynamic to the performance with each dull thud.

Not every dance is composed of an entire group, however. Hongyun Wang’s “Red Warrior” consists of only one dancer, Branson Bice. Bice appears center stage, shirtless. Clad only in red pants and a bandana, holding a hexagonally shaped drum while standing with his back to the audience.

Screams of men can be heard as a quick drum beat begins, faster than in Hiett’s performance but with much less echo. The lighting is intense and segmented. The yellow lights directed at Bice make his skin resemble molten metal. Bice moves with poise and power, raising his feet in the air and slamming them to the floor. He moves as though under attack from all sides, jumping and striking, but suddenly freezes to pose like a statue.

The combination of martial arts and dance performance makes “Red Warrior” stand out among the other performances. It is more akin to a presentation that would have entertained royalty in the earlier times. Bice makes the exhibition come alive as a true work of art. His form becomes pure energy as he dances to a rapid and manic beat during the last 30 seconds of the performance.

The final performance of the night is heralded by a low droning sound. In the darkness, the sound reverberates off the walls and shakes the air ducts. The curtains open to show a lone dancer sprawled out on the stage floor. This is Gary Abbott’s “Breaking the Dam (2014): A meditation on Ferguson: the continuum of inequality (a work in progress),” a horror film narrated by the body. A single woman walks out onto the stage and stares down at the body.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know.”

Soon other dancers walk onto the stage and walk by the body, each one saying a single word.

“Horrible.”

“Sad.”

“Terrifying.”

“Sorry.”

They walk in a formation resembling the infinity symbol until they stand in a circle surrounding the body. They begin to argue among themselves, first speaking, then shouting inaudibly, closing in to each other until they break and run off stage.

The droning is replaced by a haunting wail as the body suddenly stands up and lurches like a reanimated zombie. One woman looks on in horror as the dancer looks up and notices the other dancers running across the stage in various directions. He begins running in place as the music intensifies, soon resembling a late ’90s slasher movie as bodies continue to fill the stage.

Their moves all resemble dance moves, but none of them are performing in sync. What is created is a scene of complete pandemonium, with groups of dancers isolated at different parts of the stage lifting and passing each other in endless cycles. There is fear, monotony, rage and futility played out on every inch of the stage as UMKC Conservatory Professor Paul Rudy’s score beats harder and harder.

Soon the scene breaks away leaving only three dancers on stage. In a strange display, they act out interactions between each other, grabbing each other’s hands but suddenly pulling away angrily. It is a confusing portion, but it serves as an excellent transition to the final portion of the performance.

The rest of the dancers join the three on stage, now clad in white button-down shirts. The music has cut away and all that can be heard is the sound of light rain. The group sways together with arms held high. Eventually the sound of rain transitions into the beat of the tide rolling in and out, emulating the growing union of the group.

Finally a triumphant cascade of voices joins the ocean sounds and the dancers move in perfect unison. Abbott’s choreography is mesmerizing in this performance, but it is not without a point.

The dance ends with the group standing with their hands up, possibly referencing the “Don’t Shoot” stance, and as the lights fade out and the droning begins again, some dancers begin falling randomly. Other dancers near them lift them up but still more fall. The lights go out. This ending references Abbott’s subtitle for the dance, “A meditation on Ferguson: the continuum of inequality (a work in progress).” From the chaos of the lone body on the ground to the unified ending,  the dance, much like the nation’s response to the events of Ferguson, is just that –  “a work in progress.”

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