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In meta/physical, Medina and Zeitlin explore what happens when movement becomes dance

Studying the point when motion becomes dance feels a little like the scientific project of figuring out what happened during the first moments of the Big Bang by looking at the universe we have now. Fortunately, in programs like the recent meta/physical at Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, dance and movement artists like Julio Medina and Nadia Zeitlin create experimental conditions in which the traces of movement's translation into dance can be studied like data recorded during the impossibly brief particle interactions in a supercollider.

Medina and Zeitlin presented their work in the Schwartz Center's Dance Studio, a black box theater in the round. Medina restaged the duet Ridge from 2021 and shared a long excerpt from his new large ensemble work desahogo:undrown, which "explores concepts of space, time, and identity using techniques from martial arts to counter and heal from meta/physical attacks imposed by the residues of colonialism on wellness." Nadya Zeitlin brought a new version of Arches & Textures DWTN, which premiered this summer as a site specific work, and in which she "explores the unique architecture of Atlanta's Central Library."

Ridge, choreographed with Jasmine Jawato and performed by Julianna Feracota and Jacque Pritz was first on the bill. In structure, the piece comprised two sections that were complementary opposites of each other. Within this oppositional structure, what might otherwise have been neutral aesthetic qualities of the movement, music, and lighting acquired emotional weight and expressive potential. For example, the score in the first half of the piece was often a low drone--not unpleasant, possibly even soothing in another context, yet in contrast to the higher notes of the piano score in the second half, the lower sonic register resonated with a sense of menace or oppression.

With regard to the movement, Medina and Jawato established an opposition between the "natural," spontaneous movement of an autonomous body governed by a free consciousness and the "unnatural," choreographed movement of a body contained and constrained by external forces. Ridge opened with Feracota and Pritz laying head to head on the ground in the corner of the stage closest to the theater entrance. Both dancers demonstrated gorgeous, expressive technique throughout, and in the dance's first moments their performance of breathing, arching their backs and necks to push their heart centers upward, was objectively beautiful. Contrasted, though, with the sights and sounds that initiated the second section--of the dancers' exhausted bodies demanding oxygen and then, surprisingly, their laughter--the choreographed breathing in retrospect began to resemble something more sinister, the first gasps of someone (or something) brought to life against their will, or at the very least without their fully-informed consent.

While the movement in the first section, for example sinuously fluid, cat-like crawling on hands and feet, was consistently more polished and graceful, it was coded as unnatural in contrast to movement in the second half, which sometimes seemed fractured or halting but also appeared to originate from or express interior physical impulses or conditions. Further, the dance in the second half of Ridge, which tapped into how gesture makes internal feelings and sensations socially visible, also elicited a more deeply-felt and broader range of emotional response.

If Ridge drew attention to how dance generally emerges from an interplay of internal and external forces influencing the motions of dancers' bodies, Zeitlin's Arches & Textures DWTN, choreographed in collaboration with the dancers, focused specifically on the roles of location and observation. The duet between Meg Gourley and Raina Mitchell began with Mitchell onstage alone, investigating a box in which nested an impressive series of smaller boxes. As Mitchell unpacked and stacked the boxes, they became building blocks with which she was happily at play when Gourley sauntered onto the stage. Slowly, as Mitchell realized she was being observed, her motions began to express unease, self-consciousness. Then Gourley picked up one of the smaller boxes and gestured to Mitchell, indicating that she should pick one up and put it to her ear. Suddenly, the boxes became a phone and perhaps an architectural model. Gourley was silently haranguing Mitchell, while Mitchell listened at first with interest and then with growing dismissiveness.

On one level, this opening sequence hinted at how self-consciousness--of one's own body and often of the presence of an observing gaze--seems to be part of what turns movement into dance. On another level, though, it deftly shifted Gourley's role from observer to observed when Gourley joined Mitchell in improvised play with the boxes. This sort of perspectival shift is something Zeitlin has used to good effect elsewhere, notably Body Guarding in 2021. As Arches & Textures DWTN unfolded, the choreography destabilized scale and perspective on the stage. Sometimes the dancers seemed to be builders and architects manipulating plans and materials. At other times, the dancers were pedestrians, hemmed in by a towering built environment, and then in the next moment, the dancers were the buildings or even whole cityscapes unto themselves, walking two fingers down arms, torsos, or legs to indicate their grand scale in comparison to tiny human bodies.

Gourley and Mitchell both gave strong technical performances and also showed particular facility with the expressive improvisations that elicited laughter from the audience. Arches & Textures DWTN was intelligent and funny, but it did lose something in translation into the theater. Because the dance took place on stage, rather than in an open public space, Gourley's entrance lost some of the power it must have when the performing environment creates uncertainty about who is part of the dance and who is not, for example. Still, bringing Arches & Textures DWTN into the theater provided Zeitlin, Gourley, and Mitchell with an opportunity to put the work into direct conversation with Medina's.

The evening closed with desahogo:undrown, choreographed by Medina in collaboration with the dancers, which arguably began during intermission when the dancers took the stage to set up an impromptu sparring ring and began warming up with punching bag, jump rope, and shadow boxing. While the connection between martial arts and dance was obscure at first, during the performance and the writing of this review, their attraction for Medina came into clearer focus. Most martial arts provide a structured system in which participants combine conditioning and training--and often technical movement vocabulary--with reflex and instinct to produce movement sequences that, while not predictable per se, can be mapped stochastically and forecast with some degree of probability. To an extent, the sparring match between Feracota and Pritz, which was one of the highlights of the piece, was very similar from a process and structural perspective, to a set improvisation piece in a more conventional contemporary dance work, such as the encounter between Mitchell and Gourley that opened Arches & Textures DWTN.

And, as anyone who has winced, flinched, and sympathy groaned through a friend's boxing match or belt exam can attest, the "performance" of a martial artist can elicit a wild range of emotions and affects from an audience. For martial artists, as Medina's program notes observe, boxing or sparring can also be creatively and emotionally empowering and liberating for the participants themselves. Finally, martial arts are performative. In addition to the expressive potential of their movement vocabularies, they also provide dancers and choreographers with multi-layered visual, sonic, and spatial expressions of power, discipline, glamor, accomplishment, fatigue, aggression -- the list goes on.

In desahogo:undrown, Medina and the other twelve dancers put all of that potential to excellent use, creating a work that transformed martial arts into dance while the audience watched, and it was dance that caused those watching to feel as well as think deeply. Some sections of the work had the character of musical theater, with the dancers in their fancy athletic shoes and glittering workout robes executing jazz and hip hop influenced sequences in synchronous formation. These moments elicited a desire to get up and join them on the dance floor. A similarly empathetic response also resulted from watching Medina and then three other dancers attack a punching bag hung in the corner of the stage on a diagonal from the theater entrance. During the bout between Feracota and Pritz, the audience joined the rest of the dancers as spectators, biting back cheers and shouts of encouragement for the participants.

Towards the end of desahogo:undrown, the dancers turned their channeled, productive aggression into a confrontation with the audience as they moved in a group around the perimeter of the stage, lifting one dancer at a time up from within their midst so they could loudly declaim: "I am not your enemy. I am not your inferior. I am not your alien. I am not your criminal. I am not your prey. I am not your labor." The entire ensemble was spectacular, and the experience for the audience was truly extraordinary.

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