Striking Out Together

Vispo Dance at UCSB's Ballet Studio Theatre, Thursday, February 7

Vispo Dance

“Every year at some point, I ask myself what I’m actually preparing my students for,” UCSB dance faculty member Christopher Pilafian mused over long-stemmed strawberries at the post-show reception. Long gone is the era when graduates of university dance programs could expect to be snapped up into professional dance companies-the ratio of young hopefuls to established companies is increasingly unfavorable; few have the right combination of skill, perseverance, and sheer luck it takes to make it. For the rest, the remaining options are daunting: find another dance-related career, choose another profession entirely, or start your own company. For six recent graduates of UCSB’s BfA program, launching Vispo Dance was a no-brainer.

From formal ballet schooling to extensive gymnastic training to stints in New York’s modern dance scene, Vispo members’ dance backgrounds are as varied as the company’s name implies: Vispo stands for visual potpourri. As college students, what they shared in common was their talent, their interest in choreography, and a determination to keep dancing. Finding themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area after graduation, they joined forces, founding the company in 2005. Three years in, the six are moving together with the natural ease of friends who know one another’s thoughts without having to ask.

Thursday night’s program at UCSB’s Ballet Studio Theater showcased Vispo’s collaborative approach. All six members act as dancers, choreographers, and co-directors of the company, and the democratic approach shows in seamless partnering and a shared sense of responsibility for the dynamics on stage. Nowhere were these strengths better displayed than in Heather Glabe’s Volta, a crisp quintet that made use of the dancers’ athleticism as well as their technical precision. Black silk skirts rustled over muscular legs as the five women whirled through a mesmerizing series of collapses and recoveries, their scythe-like arms slashing the space, their weight oozing and shifting.

Vispo Dance

In Claudia Hubiak’s duet, Hide and Seek, Hubiak and Cassie Johnston alternated between marionette-like jerkiness and languorous lyricism. Against the droning, melancholic harmonies of Imogen Heap’s score, their tightly controlled movements seemed especially restrained; the piece begged for an unbridled explosion. Erin Okayama’s touch(ReConstruction) featured three dancers in gauzy, flesh-toned bikinis. Surprisingly confrontational solos gave way to passages of complex partnering, culminating in an abrupt and unexpected ending.

The entire second act of the evening was dedicated to anatomy of a gap, a lengthy work created and performed by the whole company. A layered soundtrack of original compositions and electronic samplings was punctuated with recorded voiceovers describing the body’s inner workings. In this context, the curved white set pieces scattered across the floor appeared like missing pieces from an oversized anatomical model. Against this surreal landscape, the dancers appeared in street garb: grey t-shirts and shorts, dresses and slacks. Sitting in a row facing the audience they stared, grimaced, and rolled their eyes; their mouths formed words in silence; their movements, initially languid, built to a desperate pitch. Like cells within a larger body they flowed in unison, then broke into chaos. Ambitious and complex, anatomy of a gap read like a lengthy study-not yet refined, but ripe with possibility.

For a young dancer, there are advantages and disadvantages to striking out on your own, even if you’re in good company. Vispo may lack the guidance of a mature dance artist, but these young dancers are giving themselves a crash course in company building-a skill well worth having in today’s uncertain dance world. And for the UCSB dance faculty, these six graduates are a satisfying reminder of why teaching dance is still very much worthwhile.


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