Dance performance: "Abandoned Playground" at Bard

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ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — Abby Zbikowski's choreographic process ambles.

"I take a long time when making work because I'm really interested in digging deeper with each individual dancer that I'm working with to understand what schemas they're coming from, the histories in their bodies," Zbikowski told The Eagle during a telephone interview.

But that doesn't mean her works are plodding. In "Abandoned Playground" (2017), nine dancers kick, leap, stomp and spin in various configurations for 57 minutes, at times all moving on stage simultaneously.

"Nonstop action," Zbikowski said.

On Saturday, March 31, and Sunday, April 1, Abby Z and the New Utility will perform the grueling work at The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts' LUMA Theater on Bard College's campus. The performers aren't the only ones who may be short of breath by the piece's conclusion. With an audience typically surrounding the stage, Zbikowski wants audience members to viscerally experience the dancers' physicality, maybe feeling a bit of peril as aggressive movements fill their immediate surrounds.

"It's intentionally pretty close quarters," she said.

The dancers wear kneepads, shorts and sneakers, inviting comparisons to a sports team. Zbikowski said that their matching outfits are unrelated to athletics squads, though.

"There are sections inside the work [when] there's so much movement that, if they were all wearing individualized outfits and not uniforms, then it would be almost too much to look at," she said.

Grunts, encouraging words and side-stage panting won't do much to dissuade those who are wondering if a competition of some sort has broken out in front of them. (Zbikowski, an athlete during her childhood in southern New Jersey, did cop to bringing basketballs to some rehearsals.) But the performance draws its physicality from Zbikowski's influences and process rather than courts and ballfields.

Perhaps the greatest inspiration for Zbikowski wasn't a person but a place. In 2011, Zbikowski trained at Germaine Acogny's L'Ecole des Sables in Senegal. Most of the emerging choreographers in the program hailed from West Africa and South Africa. Consequently, Zbikowski said she became more aware of different contemporary dance identities throughout Africa, particularly in the western part of the continent, even as they focused on the renowned Acogny technique.

"It was more of an overall experience of the people and the place versus just that vocabulary that we were trained in," she said.

Another influence comes from academia. Zbikowski, who is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Illinois, received her MFA from Ohio State University. She learned from, among others, renowned choreographer Bebe Miller. The Jacob's Pillow Dance regular not only influenced Zbikowski's choreography, but also her teaching.

"She invests so much in the physical exploration ... but also everything that goes along with that, like the character that lives inside of the physicality, ranging from the energy to maybe a larger cultural significance," Zbikowski said of Miller.

Zbikowski's latest work is an expansion, at the very least, in scale. Prior to "Abandoned Playground," the choreographer had focused on solos and duets since starting Abby Z and the New Utility in 2012. A 2015 duet ("Double Nickels on the Dime") featuring two of the company's longtime dancers, Jennifer Meckley and Fiona Lundie, provided the foundation for one part of the dance. A 2016 solo, "On the Line," with dancer Jessie Young inspired another.

"The psychology of those two works still live[s] inside of 'Abandoned Playground,'" Zbikowski said.

The addition of bodies to the piece posed a challenge for Zbikowski's personal process. She would have more minds to probe, sorting through information to inform her direction. She used Lundie as an example of the relationship between a dancer's history and performance.

"[With] Fiona, someone I've worked with for a while, her background is in synchronized swimming and highly competitive synchronized swimming," Zbikowski said. "So, she comes at that physicality with a specific discipline."

Zbikowski aims to balance and provide spaces for dancers' differences in the work.

"It's really not me just kind of imposing a psychological state or imposing an image. I'm proposing the physical structure that then kind of pursues these energies or forces you to cultivate a certain kind of energy or forces you to really call upon the skill set that you have from your years of doing a certain kind of movement activity," she said.

Zbikowski's dances have earned acclaim. She won the 2017 Juried Bessie Award, given to someone "who exhibits some of the most interesting and exciting ideas in dance in New York City today"; Zbikowski received recognition for "using her unique and utterly authentic movement vocabulary in complex and demanding structures to create works of great energy, intensity, surprise, and danger," according to a press release issued by The Bessies.

Zbikowski said the award has helped legitimize her work, providing new creative opportunities. But she wants to remain steeped in process.

If it were her choice, she said, "I would be in rehearsal every day."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.

IF YOU GO...

What: "Abandoned Playground" by Abby Z and the New Utility

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 31; 2 p.m. Sunday, April 1

Where: LUMA Theater, The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Tickets: $25; $5 for Bard College at Simon's Rock students

Reservations/Information: fishercenter.bard.edu; 845-758-7900


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