IMPRESSIONS: Abby Z and The New Utility’s “abandoned playground” at the 92Y's Harkness Dance Festival
February 24, 2018
Choreography: Abby Zbikowski
Performers/Collaborators: Alexa Bender, Shaela Davis, Justin Faircloth, Ali Herring, Fiona Lundie, Jen Miffer Lu, Jennifer Meckley, Evelyn Sanchez Narvaez, and Jessie Young
Original Music: Raphael Xavier
Lighting: Jon Harper
Costuming: Abby Zbikowski and Karen Zbikowski
In February, I did something I’ve never done. I watched the Winter Olympics with an almost religious fervor. Under the weather and stuck on the couch, I became mesmerized by ski jumpers soaring through the air like flying squirrels. When skater Nathan Chan attempted six quad jumps, I held my breath each time he rocketed toward the sky. Even curling had me at the edge of my seat. As the Olympics came to a close, I continued my new sports fandom in an unlikely place: The 92Y where Abby Z and The New Utility’s abandoned playground opened the 2018 Harkness Dance Festival.
Dressed for a volleyball match, Abby Zbikowski’s nine-person ensemble shakes out their legs, does calisthenics, and circles their hips. The scene, focused and intense, could easily be mistaken for a Gatorade commercial.
Then, as if an imaginary whistle is blown, they’re off and running. Legs crank and whip. Arms violently squash the air. Dancers spin on their knees. This instant intensity is unusual but a welcome change from seeing countless dances that have a slow, or seemingly no, build. Each action bellows from the belly of a muscle. Quadriceps grip. Defined forearms cut the air. They don’t dwell on what came before or comes after. The New Utility is about the now.
Zbikowski has a singular voice that culls from dance and physical forms. The dance maker, in fact, received the 2017 Juried Bessie Award for her, “rigorous and utterly unique development of an authentic movement vocabulary.” Two dancers hop across the stage with their legs dropping like levers. Sneakered feet squeak in a syncopated tap dancing rhythm, and legs splay like praying mantises often seen in Gaga technique. The dancers throw themselves around like moshers at a punk concert, edging around one another and audience members seated at the stage’s perimeter.
How long can they keep this up? Surprisingly, the whole time. From start to finish, the 60-minute work drives with an almost violent propulsion — no easy feat to maintain. Dancers grunt as they catapult their bodies up in the air and grimace through repetitive, vigorous actions. They yell, “You got this!” to an exhausted counterpart or whoop to pump each other up. No matter how ferocious the dancers remain, the thrilling scene begins to wear towards the end. What felt at first an exploration of how far one can push their physical limitations and the negotiation between brain and body now begins to teeter on indulgent.
Though these individuals may not be Olympic athletes representing their home country, they’re equally exhilarating in their demonstration of the power of a clan, whether it be a team, dance company, or family. For those who think dance is for the dainty and ethereal, the performers of The New Utility reshape notions of what a dancer looks like and what can be considered dance.
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For more IMPRESSIONS, click here, and to read our 2017 interview with Abby Z, click here.
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