WUDT comes back to the stage with ‘Return’
The curtain rises on a dark stage. Five dancers stand highlighted in blue spotlights and begin to move slowly. The piece, “Edgings,” choreographed by Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, begins the otherworldly experience of Washington University Dance Theatre (WUDT).
WUDT titled this year’s performance “Return” in honor of their return to the in-person space of the Edison Theatre, but sitting in the audience, I could not tell that they had ever been gone. The Friday night performance was packed, with the seats almost completely full, and the audience enraptured by every movement.
“Edgings” managed to be both regal and frantic, with purposeful breaks in the synchronicity of the dancers’ movements — such as one dancer racing across the stage whilst the others look on — that suggest the edges of purposeful consciousness. Sometimes, all dancers laid on their backs on the stage, moving their legs in the air like a rotated conga line. At several points I felt distinctly as though I was watching a narrative, but could never quite understand what that narrative was. This created another example of the edge (this time, of meaning). Even the bow at the dance’s end was a carefully choreographed spectacle, suggesting a grander purpose while I remained unable to perceive it.
The following piece, too, carried “Edgings”’ regal energy while imbuing what I took to be a clear theme. David Marchant choreographed the almost 16-minute “Winter Song,” a piece in which I was so enraptured, I failed to notice the time pass. In it, a crowd of ethereal figures take the stage, moving slowly in a deliberate almost-synchronicity reminiscent of leaves in the wind. “Winter Song” is divided into distinct sections. In the first, the dancers appear almost unaware of their bodies, even existence. The second takes on a more human shape, with eight of the dancers standing on the edges of a rectangle of white light holding dark umbrellas as the final two contort, interacting in ways that could be supporting the other dancer or trying to tug them down. It is somber, funereal.
The group comes together in the third section, moving as part of a larger whole. They kneel, laying their hands on the ground in supplication, before moving to a line in which they flail their arms almost wildly. I found myself strangely reminded of an octopus, arms reaching out from a central whole in a search for… something. That something may be God, or connectivity and meaning more generally, as the dancers crowd around the edges of a steadily-shrinking spotlight, barely keeping their hands in it until they hold the light aloft in their palms before a cut to black.
Guest choreographer Heather Beal’s “I Want Some Sugar in my Bowl” provided the transition between the first two dances’ somber tones and the final acts’ high energy. The piece began with dancers walking across a dark stage, bringing candles to a memorial. Each said a name as they placed their candle, but the size of the theater rendered the words unintelligible. Only the first few seconds of the piece retain this melancholy; as the first three dancers stand up from the candles they have placed across the stage, Nina Simone’s powerful “Feeling Good” kicks in and the lights switch from blue to red. “Powerful” indeed describes the entire dance. Fists in the air at the song’s cry “Freedom,” the dancers confidently moved across the stage, a joyful and defiant celebration of life in the face of the losses that came before.
That same energy filled “Stepping Good,” Anthony Redd Williams’ short piece to the song of the same name. The stage was nearly full, lights and crowd reminiscent of a club or dance crew, and energy high enough to get the audience to tap their foot along with the beat. Even after leaving the theater into the cold night, I found myself humming along to “Stepping Good.”
Between those two pieces came perhaps the most abstract dance of the night, “Not all these things are true,” choreographed by Elinor Harrison. Partly interactive, the audience scanned a QR code and answered questions at certain points of the show while dancers moved before the projector screen, their choreography complimenting the audience answers, which occasionally overshadowed them. The massive, and steadily growing, word “GAY” onscreen in response to the second question, “A dream I tell myself is…” drew most attention away from the performers. At other points, one dancer would separate from the others and speak to the audience, telling anonymous fun facts about the other dancers or narrating a story of a childhood encounter with a deer. The piece ended with one dancer singing a haunting Spanish song and playing the piano as the others migrated from the stage to gather around and watch her.
Undeniably, the dance spoke to friendship and the formation of community, knowing people and yourself deeper than the surface and the process by which that familiarity forms. But the dance often confused me, with choreography I felt I was missing the point of and a structure that fooled me into thinking the piece was over multiple times before its true end. The combination of various different dance and music styles, too, may have mimicked the variety of life but also felt somewhat disjointed, leaving me confused.
Sometimes, that confusion is the point. I remain unsure whether “Not all these things are true” conveyed what it was meant to, but it certainly stuck in my head. I too remain surprised that it was the only piece to incorporate digital elements, after the success of last year’s entirely virtual shows, both WUDT and MFA Dance, that successfully used the medium to their advantage. But that may be why this year’s show was titled “Return” – a return not only to in-person performance but its practices.