There’s a critical transition when a dancer leaves the conservatory or the university hoping to become a professional. After the safety of daily technique classes surrounded by peers—a world where regular attendance and effort count for something—suddenly it’s an all-out battle for a paying contract. Faced with the enormity of the challenge, some stuff their leotards into the bottom drawer and opt for a desk job. Others reach for the reason they started dancing in the first place: the sheer joy of it.
What’s unusual is to see students of dance harness themselves to that joy before circumstances demand it. Yet, last Wednesday night, the UCSB Dance Company proved the model wrong. Under the direction of Delila Moseley, these 14 undergraduates presented a full evening of works by students, faculty members, and guest artists, including excerpts from Jennifer Muller’s watershed work “Speeds” from 1974. From the opening solo of Nancy Colahan’s exuberant and lyrical “Elastic Flip” through to the final eruption of kinetic energy in “Speeds,” this was a night of no-holds-barred dancing. Not the stiff composure of formal ballet barre or the glazed-over faces of technicians: Instead, these dancers hurled themselves into each new work, their faces open and bright. They looked into each other’s eyes, laughing, teasing, calling one another into the dance. Oh yeah, and their toes were pointed and their hips were turned out.
In Sulijah Learmont’s “Lumi,” a seductress in a red dress made five dancers writhe and twitch, the deep beats of downtempo sending them into such spasmodic popping and locking that the audience hooted with pleasure. In Valerie Huston’s Icelandic ghost story–inspired “Dragusaga,” exuberant group sections provided a dramatic foil for a haunting solo, illuminated only by flickering flashlights.
Post-intermission, Mike Esperanza’s “Up, onward and around” gave the company a chance to show its fluency with release technique—soft suspensions and collapses governing their movement as wind rustles a pile of dry leaves. And in Mira Kingsley’s theatrical trio “God Gave Them Eyes for That,” the sinister thwack of a helicopter punctuated Hungarian folk music as the dancers linked arms like paper dolls and marched resolutely forward.
“Speeds,” which closed the program, represented a yearlong process in which the choreographer herself flew out from New York to direct rehearsals. Muller treated the young dancers as professional company members—demanding serious work and nuanced performance—and they responded in kind. Between this unprecedented opportunity and the touring they’ve done this year, most recently to Italy and N.Y.C., they don’t look like the same kids who joined the company in September. They dance like pros, which is to say, they dance like they’ve broken through “getting it right” and discovered elation on the other side.