Dance crafts solid 'Stream' and flow

The unconventional Berkeley Dance Project allows its dancers to improvise and learn - outside the studio.

Photo: Presented during two consecutive weekends at Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley Dance Project's 'Stream' combines the material body and the  incorporeal mind, with an emphasis on use of technology.
Austin Forbord/Courtesy
Presented during two consecutive weekends at Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley Dance Project's 'Stream' combines the material body and the incorporeal mind, with an emphasis on use of technology.

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Dance is a complicated medium. At once visceral and abstract, the form translates the corporal body into a metaphor for ideas and emotions. Each spring, UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies explores this complexity through a collaborative and somewhat notoriously abstract showcase of dances. "Stream," the title of this year's rendition of the Berkeley Dance Project, is meant to evoke the flow of water as well as the flow of human consciousness and its interaction with technology in the modern world.

The show opened with graduate student and choreographer Hentyle Yapp's piece "The MacGuffin," film jargon for an object or element that drives the actions of the characters. The macguffin of "The MacGuffin" is an instant message conversation between friends projected onto a screen above the stage. As it became clear that there were suppressed romantic feelings involved, the conversation grew increasingly awkward. From this the dance took shape. Saturated in hyper-drama, the momentum was as much confusing as it was intriguing, like something strange that you can't stop staring at.

Adding to the unconventional flair, "The MacGuffin" was not set to music in the traditional sense. Rather, the accompaniment for the piece was a sort of subtle noise, oftentimes generated live by the exhalations of the dancers or the bouncing of rubber balls across the stage. "I purposely made it more of a sound scene than a soundtrack," said Yapp of his approach to crafting the piece. "I wanted to think how dancers could still improvise, and have sound enter and dissipate like waves."

From "Macguffin," the production shifted to the more politically-flavored "Many Have Lived without Love, but None without Water," choreographed by faculty member Peggy Hackney. Created for inclusion in the upcoming international project "Global Water Dances," the piece dramatized privatization of water rights. Set against a backdrop of two floor-to-ceiling screens (along with masterfully layered projected images and music), dancers in flowing white dresses flowed like droplets of water. Technological elements worked to enhance "enormity and intensity of depth of color, and also the amplification of human flow," as Hackney put it.

In stepping though the trajectory of soothing natural water motifs to the grind of the industrial world, the dance's focus became the global controversy of water rights. Empty plastic bottles littered the stage, and the dancer-droplets lost their flow and became confined to more mechanical motions. A trio of women in dresses made of plastic bottles (a true feat of costume design) appeared on stage, evoking the fashionable culture of bottled water.

The third and final piece of the evening, "The Somnabulist's Dream," was a darkly whimsical commentary on the strange state of mind between waking and sleeping choreographed by faculty members Lisa Wymore and Ellen Bromberg. Along with pre-shot footage, the piece employed seven projectors and two live-feed video cameras, allowing images and video to be shot and projected live on an onstage screen.

"The camera itself becomes a character," said Wymore. "I've always been interested in the 'mecanique,' the things that we build that are extensions of ourselves." The use of the camera and the layering of images gave the audience a sensation double-seeing, enhancing strange details and heightening emotional moments. In this way, "The Somnambulist's Dream" crafted a moving portrait of the diffuse space between physical and digital being.

A unique aspect of the Berkeley Dance Project is that it is produced in the university environment. Each piece is simultaneously an original work and a learning experience for the students involved, providing the choreographers a chance to experiment with novel teaching methods. Dancers in the Water piece took time to observe the flow of water in Strawberry Creek. For "The MacGuffin," Yapp allowed his performers an unusual measure of freedom shaping the finer details of the performance, encouraging them to improvise on the spot. "The piece was four minutes longer or shorter on some nights," said Yapp. "I wanted to allow the dancers to improvise and play, and feel what they needed to within the framework that I gave them. But they could mess with time in that way."

Giving technology such a central role in both the Water piece and in "Somnabulist" brought about new challenges for both choreographers and performers. Because the show relies so heavily on technological elements, it was impossible to see how it would actually look until the performers moved into Zellerbach Playhouse during the final week of rehearsals. "I had no idea how it would turn out. There was an incredible anxiety," said Hackney. In performance, however, the technology cooperated flawlessly.

The real challenge of making the Berkeley Dance Project work is bringing the dances together in a way that isn't disparate, avoiding artificial connections and instead crafting a cohesive and meaningful performance out of three abstractions. If this year's production tells us anything, it's that dance is an evolving art form. It can be political, it can be a social commentator, it can be simply a celebration of the beauty of the human form - but all in a somewhat limited capacity. "Stream" as a whole is wary of this. "If we just continue to think that each one thing has the potential to change the world, then we aren't doing justice to what justice really is," said Yapp. "We're not doing justice to what change can really be."


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