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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Graffiti Turns 40: An Evening of Dance

Or: Tears in the batter, laughter in the flames.

It is a remarkable thing that a student company, handed down year to year, should have survived to its fortieth year. Very few collaborations, student, professional, or even human live so long. It’s also ironic that a dance company has lived to the age when most of our bodies crest the bell curve of vitality and begin to slide towards aches, pains, and rebellions. In spite of a harrowing past and an uncertain future, (and their entertainments focusing more on lost love, workplace violence, and class warfare then celebrations), the Graffiti Dancers leap into our laps with their customary zest, their well honed nimbleness, and their Northwestern University smarts.

Though all of the many imaginings this evening and the many supple executions of the dancers deserve mention, I must constrain myself to eight, short portraits of those pieces that caught my imagination and took it out dancing. Just know that all were deserving of a seat at the table and a slice of cake to take home.

Strings: by Pam Kranyak Door Prize: Most Tinkersome

We start off with a pod of dancers held up like the world’s most delicate marionettes. Tissuey skirts wafting round their thighs, grins of bucolic delight painted on their faces, they step and leap and gambol through cannon of classic ballet steps. But, as Fun’s kaleidoscopic, folky, train wreck “Be Calm” sways them in its grip, the strings are cut and the dancers, no longer grinning, slide into more organic, wilder motions; the flops, rolls and sleeve pushes that make up the looser cannon of modern dance steps. No longer smiling, the dancers try to ride the turbulent music and hook up their strings again. A refreshing and disquieting take on a tried and tested scenario, the piece is moreover a pointed picture of a generation who survive by surfing on waves of anxiety, with often unpleasant results.

The Three Faces of Eve: by Jacinda Ratcliffe Door Prize: Most Harmonious (and Disturbing)

I’m ashamed to say it I’d be dished if I can tell you what exactly the three faces of Eve were. All I can attest to is Ratcliff’s genius in working her dexterous Eves (Annalissa Hartsell, Pam Kranyak, and Vatsala Kumar) individual movements into one flowing whole, a twitch of Kranyaks’ bicep, triggering a snap in Hartsell’s neck, triggering a sharp extension of Kumar’s arm. Even more fascinating was that, in the middle of this symbiotic connection the dancers would often exchange places or take up movements mid stride, sometimes coming together as one, sometimes visiting a cold but insistent abuse upon the each other and themselves. Something was eating at these women, and though I could not figure out what, the hairs on my neck stood to attention at the beautiful, terrible pain that emanated from them like cold.

While the Cat’s Away: by Aric Barrow Door Prize: Nimblest of foot and wit.

We find ourselves cordially invited to the manner of Sir Benton Bailey (Benton Bailey) to celebrate his birthday, but are drawn instead to the shenanigans of his staff (Aric Barrow, Katherine Scott and Cami Goldstein) who plan to throw a part of their own, to the swinging twenty’s-esque pop of “Suzy” by Caravan Palace. Though frequently interrupted by their stern but mild master the three joyously prance about, shimmy, and slide between each others knees, all the while bridling their high sprits with the poise and preciseness expected of an English Country House. If Mr. Mosely, Mrs. Hughes, and Daisy of Downton Abby fame ever, “Got Down, and Jiggy with it” it might conceivably look like this.

1974: by Aric Barrow Door Prize: Just Plain Fun

To celebrate their birthday the whole company take us back to Graffiti’s inception in dear old ’74. The fashions, the grooves, the tunes, the personalities are all out of the age of revolution and disco. Though initially great batch of confusion and stimulus overload (Those shirts. Those shirts were so...bright. My eyes!) but the half second scenes of various ‘70s types’ flirting, fighting and making merry, along with the general air of exuberance are fair compensation for lost sight lines (and scorched corneas).

The Lucky Ones: by Annalissa Hartnell Door Prize: Most Moving

Again, I cannot put my finger precisely on what story was being told but I can tell you it was not a happy one. The five performers (Hartnell, Scott, Alyssa Sarnoff, Elizabeth Summers and Sarah Hersey) rolled and spun in an amberized urgency, not dancing for the sake of dancing but unable to complete any definite action either. Their speed, the controlled by lightning fast extensions and springs, manipulated by syrupy and painful plucks of Daughter’s “Youth”, spoke of some great and terrible event at work. Costume designer, Emily Martin’s embroidered white dress with a blazoned scorch mark, suggested ghosts of period women trapped with some great historic blaze, like the Triangle Fire or the Big Burn on 1910. This sense of dancing photography was underscored by lighting designer Dylan Reyno’s awe inspiring succession of amber strobes and exquisite sidelight shifts and highlighted by Hersey’s uncanny talent for suddenly freezing, as though petrified, while her fellows roll around her, a creepy but electrifying cessation. The Lucky One’s spoke of great pain, but it was a great pain turned by a gracefulness into great art.

The Interview: by Annelise Baker Door Prize: Most Amusing

Coming down from the audience to sit for a job interview, Annelise Baker finds her douplegager (Alex Frankenthal) dressed in the exact same corporate casual seated in the waiting room. Cue the James Bond Music and the passive, and the aggressive combat, in humorous array of pranks, violence and dance-offs.

Instrumental Interlude: by Cami Goldstein Door Prize: Shortest and Sweetest

Sometimes, in this supper intelligent and intimidating world of modern dance it’s nice to come across something deliberately simple, though not simplistic. Goldstein, Hersey, Kumar and Ratcliffe take some minutes amid all the rolling and flipping and epic storytelling to take pleasure in the grace of ballet. Buoyed up by the luscious music of the Vitamin String Quartet’s “Pompeii”, that refreshes the ear like a fresh spring water, they pirouette, arabesque and generally pay homage to the reverend art form, the dance of monarchs, the “baby steps” that lead to so many of their contemporaries contortions.

Baby Shot me Down: by Jacinda Ratcliffe Door Prize: Party Pleaser

I hate to claim favorites but Ratcliffe once again dazzled me with her superior understanding of the human eye and how the human body responds to it. In what might have a confused mass of dancers, all jiving well but lost to the audience Ratcliffe divides the company into shadowy pairs or trios for Nancy Sinatra’s slow and sorrowful “My Baby Shot Me Down”, before combining the groups and spreading up the footwork with the younger, retro, and celebratory “Bang Bang” by Will. i. am. It creates a perfect frame reflecting on the somber acts that came before while ending the evening on a celebratory note, giving each of the dancers the chance to show off and while bringing the whole ensemble together. Her equitable portions ensure that it’s everyone’s party and they can dance how they like.

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