UCSB students threw themselves into dances like faculty member Tonia Shimin's "Bone Whispers."

David Bazemore

UCSB students threw themselves into dances like faculty member Tonia Shimin's "Bone Whispers."

Got Spine?

From the Backbone Forward, presented by UCSB’s Department of Theater and Dance. At Hatlen Theatre, Sunday, April 15.

I love watching dance-I’ve made a career of it. But I’ll also readily admit that sometimes, dance can look stilted. Really, I understand why the very idea of a dance performance-especially an amateur or pre-professional one-makes some people squirm. Certain kinds of training emphasize technique over expression, control over abandon, and the result can be painful-performance without propulsion, dance that lacks spine. It’s not uncommon. It’s also not a problem at UCSB.

Yes, these dancers are young. Some of them are only just beginning to explore the depth of the hungers, idiosyncrasies, and vulnerabilities that make them human and make them artists. And yet, they’re on their way.

Two of the six works presented in this program were student pieces: Victor Fung’s “Inc.” and Chelsea Retzloff’s “Relative Memory.” Fung’s ambitious group work was a plotless story in which dancers in identical black suits swung from uniformity to urgent escape and back again, against a challenging, electronic score by Michael Lowenstern. The setting for Retzloff’s piece (hanging lanterns, a dresser topped with a vintage radio, women in weighty satin) evoked without narrating, allowing the work’s nostalgic, layered mood to remain an abstraction.

In both cases, choreographers and dancers alike showed a willingness to dig in and deal with the stuff of real dance: weight and momentum, longing and intimacy, risk-taking and exposure. Tonia Shimin’s dream-like “Bone Whispers,” Nancy Colahan’s sprightly, lyrical “Inflorescence,” and Stephanie Nugent’s ecstatic piece of dance-theater, “Stop Searching-your mouth is full of feathers,” all pieces by department faculty members, gave further opportunities for the dancers to prove their mettle. Seeing students perform the work of their teachers is a bit like witnessing a lecture-demonstration; it’s a way to take the audience into the studio and display the styles and techniques that produce young dancers, and dance-makers, like these.

This program hinted at the diversity of approaches to contemporary dance within a single school-a promising sign for launching sophisticated artists. The proof, of course, is in the product. Judging from the way the student company devoured the program’s final work, guest choreographer Keith Johnson’s “At Last it’s Clear,” UCSB is teaching its students how to dive into movement, and attack it from the backbone forward-in other words, how to dance.

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