By Jessi DiTillio, co-founding member, Neon Queen Collective
Walking into the Long Center’s black box space, the Rollins Studio theatre, we were seated in two rows around the large rectangle of the central dance floor. The dancers were already warming up as the audience settled in, their bright yellow basketball shorts, athletic shoes, and black knee-pads made them appear more like a sports team then a troupe of dancers.
In fact, every element of Abby Z and the New Utility’s show seemed scrubbed of the prettiness we expect from dance. The dancers were unadorned with makeup, their hair was pulled back into simple ponytails—they huffed and grunted and sweated with the exertion of their movements. The production was stripped down, mostly performed without music, so that the rhythmic sounds of their bodies became the accompaniment.
In addition to the slaps of skin on floor, the panting breath, the rubbery squeaks of sneakers, this symphony of physical effort was accompanied by startling exclamations from the other dancers on the sidelines… “Go Evelyn!” “You can do it Ali!” “You’ve got this Justin!” “That’s it! Right there!” These cheers were yelled from behind the audience, surrounding us, recruiting us into the collective, compassionate project of achieving some undefined goal of accomplishment, as a team.
The evening-length performance was a feat of endurance, for both dancers and audience. Each dancer seemed to have been tasked with a particular physical mission, which they pursued doggedly as their teammates cheered them on. As the dancers hurled themselves across the stage, pumping arms, stomping feet, spinning in seemingly endless rotations, we followed each move breathlessly, gasping at the virtuosity and violence of their strenuous actions. As the performance came to an end, my friends and I slumped back in our chairs, exhausted by the embodied empathy the performance demanded of us.
In a Waffle Chat with her mentor Charles Anderson earlier in the day, choreographer Abby Zbikowski spoke passionately about process, about the revelations that come though the physicality of dance. She spoke of her own violent childhood, whose trauma found redemption in particular dance techniques that allowed her to physically channel her rage. This connection, between physical exertion and healing trauma, vibrated through the energy of the piece. We watched the dancers, we imagined their exhaustion and pain, we saw the flickers of joy and accomplishment on their faces, and we breathed a cathartic sigh of relief when it was over.