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We live in boundary-stretching times. As soon as you think “surely this is the limit” or “at least it can’t get worse,” a new circumstance pushes its way in, reconfiguring us and changing our limits. But Abby Z and the New Utility's abandoned playground at Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts asked whether it could be welcome and thrilling to test what we can handle.
abandoned playground, the exhilarating second offering of Bryn Mawr College’s Performing Arts Series, is the kind of performance art that tries the stamina of its performers and its audience — but when we were forced to the breaking point, the air around us crackled. This was a marathon to witness, and Abby Z and the New Utility are ones to look out for.
The hourlong movement piece by choreographer Abby Zbikowski, executed by her company, explores the push and pull between painstaking effort and the triumph of breaking through to new levels. The audience walked into a square playing space with multiple entrances; the dancers were already at center, rhythmically stretching and jogging to the beat of the music. Clad in yellow running shorts with a white stripe on the side, black athletic shirts, and black sneakers, they were like a sports team warming up for a big game instead of a dance ensemble. But what was to come was so athletically heroic that the cross-country-team aesthetic was part function, part reminder of what these dancers were going to attempt.
The punk-techno soundscape from Raphael Xavier surged and abandoned playground hit the ground running — literally, these dancers were running suicide drills across the floor. (To anyone having flashbacks to punishing gym classes: it gets more dangerous from here.) But then the music cut out, only emerging again in brief moments, and we were left with the sounds of the dancers: a symphony of grunts and labored breathing, the squeaks of rubber soles scraping the floor, and rebel yells.
The audience didn’t get to sit back as music covered the performers’ exertions. It was intimate — and, as energetic as Xavier’s musical choices were, I didn’t miss them when they were gone. I was relieved when I could go back to the sounds of the performers and frustrated when periodic music separated us.
Zbikowski is fascinated by the “choreographic potential of the body being pushed beyond its perceived limits,” and boy, did she push her team. Dancers spun in straightleg pirouettes longer than even your imaginations might allow. They pounded the earth with their feet and hands over and over again until it seemed they might make the center of the earth vibrate. They crawled across the floor with impossible slowness and control one minute, then sprung up to do seemingly unending high-knee jumps the next. It was exhausting and uncompromising. It was invigorating. I felt dehydrated just watching them.
Beyond their impressive athleticism, the dancers pushed and encouraged each other throughout. When dancers left the playing space for a much-deserved rest and water break, they still actively watched those onstage, saying things like “let it go,” “mhmm,” and “you got this.” This was an ensemble undertaking. No-one was going to complete this solo, but that was never the expectation. And maybe that’s the intended takeaway: we can push ourselves all we like, but we’re never going to truly make it through if we try to go it alone.
What, When, Where
abandoned playground. By Abby Z and the New Utility. December 7 and 8, 2018, at Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall, 150 N. Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA. (610) 526-5210 or abbyznewutility.org.
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