A line of dancers saunters across the stage in silence. They’re dressed entirely in white, and they move unnaturally slowly, then pick up speed, arms swinging, feet hitting the floor in unison. An electronic chord blasts into the space and they fly apart, each one launching into a focused and intense solo, only to resolve into another unhurried line as the music dissolves once more into silence.
This polished ensemble is the UCSB Dance Company, and the piece they’re performing is “Speeds,” Jennifer Muller’s seminal work from 1974. One might worry that at more than 35-years-old, “Speeds” would look dated. Instead, it’s fresh and vibrant — pure tonic at the end of the night.
Last Friday, UCSB’s department of theater and dance hosted its first ever dance conference, Transformation and Continuance: Jennifer Muller and the Reshaping of American Modern Dance, 1959-Present. The conference honored Muller, a key player in the experimental dance scene of 1970s New York, and brought prominent critics and academics from across the nation to reflect on her place in the larger field of contemporary dance. A related exhibition on view throughout the week gave insight into Muller’s training, her career as a dancer, and the development of her technique and creative vision.
Thanks to an NEA grant, over the course of the past academic year Muller has held three residencies at UCSB to teach “Speeds” to the undergraduate members of this year’s student company. Those 12 dancers got their chance to show the results in From the Sky to the Ground, this year’s spring dance concert.
Aside from “Speeds,” the program was devoted primarily to student choreography, and their works showed the influence of their study with Muller. Pavel Machuca Zavarzina’s dramatic, shadowy quintet “Open Eyes” echoed “Speeds” in its use of silence, as well as the recurring line of dancers upstage. Lauren Serrano borrowed from “Speeds” the spirit of joyful play, while a basin of water in Lindsay Slavik’s “It is Finished” seemed to reference another early Muller work, “Tub,” from 1973.
In Sulijah Learmont’s “MUUTOS” and in many of the evening’s works, Muller’s influence showed in the use of silence and stillness — qualities generally rare in student choreography — as well as in sudden, unexpected changes in tempo and mood.
Conference organizer and department faculty member Ninotchka Bennahum also showed an excerpt of her work, “Carmen’s Body,” co-created with Brad Rahmlow and dancer Darion Loman. In this piece and throughout the evening, the quality of technique and performance was high.
There’s no doubt what an impact Muller’s presence in the department has made for this year’s undergraduates, who’ve risen quickly from the ranks of students to true pre-professionals. The next step for UCSB: to make such residencies an annual occurrence.