Radioactive Practice | Abby Z and the New Utility | von der Heyden Studio Theater, Durham | 

June 30–July 2

Choreographer Abby Zbikowski knows that our culture has made showing up difficult for many.

“But there are ways of being visible—and not just in the shell of whatever body you’re in. It’s also what you can do in that body, through action, to affect your surroundings,” she says.

The award-winning choreographer, whose latest work, Radioactive Practice, appears at the American Dance Festival this week, goes quiet for a moment, then adds: “Some people don’t speak all their politics. They embody them.”

In a bracing solo at the start of the new work, you can almost feel the sting of Jennifer Meckley’s palms as they slap her forearms: an alerting gesture seemingly designed to wake the skin. The moment comes at the outset of a piece in whose sections dancers undergo a series of rapid, radical reorientations: cascades of sudden, and sometimes explosive, shifts and relocations, individual and group positionings that are briskly occupied, rigorously explored, and then evacuated.

The work seems in many ways a primer on how to claim space in an age of pressurized anxiety. “We’ve been in a lot of tornadoes,” Zbikowski says as she reflects on how both her work and the culture have changed during the pandemic.

A completed earlier version of the work was scheduled to premiere in New York one week after all theaters closed down for COVID in 2020; as the quarantine stretched over a year, she was only able to retain four of the composition’s 10 performers. Zbikowski ultimately had to create a new work, building it upon the real-life relationships among a sextet including Meckley and Fiona Lundie, founding members of her company, Abby Z and the New Utility.

From the first moments of Zbikowski’s 55-minute gauntlet, their bodies are undeniably emphatic as they negotiate its conspicuously ever-shifting circumstances. Their feet pummel the floor with pile-driver triplets—stomp stomp breath, stomp stomp breath—before Lundie lunges across the room at full extension in another section, swiping her left hand around before a pivoting hip slide across the floor.

Full commitment and full presence—at full throttle—are key elements throughout. The group burns through kilocalories, channeling incredible energy and strength. Dancer Alex Gossen repeatedly turns 90 degrees in midair while propelling himself upward from all fours from the floor; Benjamin Roach lifts Lundie’s form from the floor and flings her backward in a jaw-dropping later exercise.

The insistence and endurance the dancers evince have a genesis in the pandemic as well. “It’s like a slow burn all the way through,” Zbikowski says. “It’s been like a fire we’ve all had to keep going through. I think everyone can relate to just keeping going, now more than ever.”

A relentless, adrenal agency pulses in the sequences of Radioactive Practice. It draws on the hyperphysicality among experimental choreographers like Andréya Ouamba and Vincent Mantsoe, who Zbikowski studied with during her time in Senegal.

Zbikowski notes that the most avant-garde or forward training and work she’s seen anywhere has been from African choreographers. “I think it’s because they’re not coming from the same starting point—ballet and modern—that a lot of choreographers have in the US.

“There’s something about the energy that’s just jumping out of the people as they’re moving.” Examining that energy calls Zbikowski to scrutinize “what is in us and what it has come to mean.”

Where other dancemakers have remained preoccupied with gossamer distractions of dwindling relevance in a culture in increasingly open conflict and a larger world at war, Zbikowski and her dancers remind us that there is an undeniable fierceness in the life force and that its energies can be harnessed, combined, and directed toward collaboration and exploration—and, if need be, escape—from current circumstances.

“Maybe ‘primal’ isn’t the right word,” Zbikowski reflects. “There’s something primordial in me, in which we’re not just talking but have the ability to shout; this sense of needing to rally the troops, like a battle cry.”

Agency feels good. Roundhouse kicks punctuate certain sequences, while performers yell not only cues but encouragement elsewhere during Zbikowski’s labyrinth of sequences. “Get it, Alex!” a colleague shouts when Gossen executes an intricate traffic pattern with torso, arms, and feet; dancer Jinsei Sato, meanwhile, beams while embodying a torsional move across stage.

Dancers flick off gestural patterns of behaviors that no longer serve and fling themselves headlong into cyclic gestures that might suggest something somewhere between full-body davening and auto-exorcism. As the work develops, the keys to not just claiming space, but marking, transforming and filling it to the brim with sheer life force, become clear.

They include agility, full investment in each moment, and thorough exploration of all options. Remain nonattached to any circumstance, and burn through all that excess energy; it has to get out in any eventuality.

Perhaps the biggest key of all? Keep moving.

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