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UW Dance Presents

It’s funny how some settings will always bring up the same type of memories for you, even if you haven’t been there before personally. I’m not really expecting the wave of nostalgia that hits me as I sit down in the theater at UW to see their “UW Dance Presents” concert but just being there and hearing excited chatter from other students in the audience reminds me of the countless dance concerts I danced in or watched as an audience member through high school and college. I’ve been looking forward to this concert because out of the four choreographers that will be featured, two specialize in dance forms that are not often seen on stages at colleges and universities and I’m excited to see their work here at UW, alongside two works by Alana Isiguen and Jennifer Salk that are more expected within the concert dance canon.

Nene Kondo in Wild Card by Jennifer Salk at the UW Dance Presents Concert. Lighting Design by Amiya Brown, Costume Concept by Jordan Fell and Jennifer Salk. Photo by Michael B. Maine.

Alana Isiguen’s Untitled begins with the dancers stomping out a rhythm, which sets the tone for the entire piece. Isiguen’s collaborator, Gary Palmer, is a notable presence onstage, as he plays the piano and also adds percussive elements to his score by using every part of the instrument, from its pedals to the strings. The dancers of this piece follow Palmer’s musical lead by actively marking the rhythm as they physicalize it in small ways in their bodies – with repetitive, circular shoulder movements for example – or connect to it with larger gestural movements. The contrast of these smaller, more intimate moments with larger sections of sweeping movements fills the space in an inviting way.

Jennifer Salk’s piece Wild Card is a reconstruction of a piece originally made in 2014 and also plays with live music featuring three percussionists, seated both above and around the edges of the stage. Their rhythmic score provides a throughline for this piece with multiple sections that develop from abstract beginnings into a nearly narrative ending. Wild Card begins with the dancers contained in individual squares of light and blue tape on the floor. The dancers each spring to life as the light hits them, before fading back into pedestrian entrances or exits. Their primary task for most of the piece is removing and relaying the tape that surrounds them in new patterns on the floor. The “big reveal”, and most delightful moment of this piece, is realizing that a taped grid on the floor is for a recess-style game of foursquare, transforming into a theatrical take on the best parts of P.E. class from my youth.

UW Dancers in Life is for Living by Tracey Wong at the UW Dance Presents Concert. Lighting Design by Amiya Brown, Costume Design by Jordan Fell. Photo by Michael B. Maine.

The energetic peak of the concert is guest artist Tracey Wong’s Life is for Living, which was created in collaboration with the dancers. Wong’s waacking/whacking style is brought to life in her work through the energy of the dancers, the disco inspired dance track, dramatic rainbow lighting design by Amiya Brown, and bright pink and orange costuming. Wong’s piece makes me reflect that I don’t know as much about this style as I would like to, but footwork driven movements and precise but spiraling arm motions stand out. The highlight of this piece is a section that mimics the dance battles that are typical of this style and also give the dancers’ individual personalities a moment to really shine. They dance down the aisle that is created on stage, sharing a solo moment with both the audience and their fellow dancers as they each flaunt their signature moves.

Professor Christine Şahin choreographed two pieces for the concert. Saidi-Raqs Assaya is first in the program and does an admirable job of showcasing a sequence of some of the more feminine movements that are done in this Egyptian style of dance, before transitioning to a section focused on the more masculine tahtib, which is a movement practice based on combative play with long canes or sticks. Approaching each other in theatrical dueling movements, dancers demonstrate their strength and control by spinning and tossing the sticks in the air. 

Şahin’s second work, the striking Raqs al Hecha: Hecha, begins with a moving soundscape that combines edited excerpts from President George W. Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom” speech from 2003 with recordings of Şahin’s mentor, Sara al-Hadithi, speaking to the Iraqi experience from that time period. It’s impossible to ignore the parallels between Bush’s speech about Iraq and the current events that are continuing to unfold today in the Middle East and especially in Palestine. This sets the stage powerfully for Raqs al Hecha, which revolves around a large corps of dancers, dressed in long black dresses and wielding a small pair of daggers, both of which are characteristic of more modern interpretations of this Iraqi dance style. It’s always exciting to see this many dancers perform Hecha live – with its signature circular head movements that create dramatic movements of the dancers’ hair, high energy hopping movements, and dramatic backbends – and this performance is no exception.

Sachiko Miyoshi and other UW Dancers in Raqs al Hecha by Christine Şahin at the UW Dance Presents Concert. Lighting Design by Amiya Brown, Costume Design by Jordan Fell. Photo by Michael B. Maine.

All in all, I finish the night with many reflections on what this type of concert really means in the broader context of U.S. concert dance and dance education. It’s not much of a secret among dancers who have gone through college and university dance programs in America that most of them center ballet and modern or contemporary dance. While it has started to become more common to see vernacular forms like waacking or cultural forms like MENAT (Middle Eastern, North African, and Turkish) dance styles on large stages, it is still rather unusual to see them as part of higher education dance programs and for many students, this may be their first time performing them. Viewers educated in these forms can see a gap in skill level between students’ experience with these cultural forms versus the more common ballet and modern dance forms that students have likely studied for most of their lives. 

There is still more work to be done, but it is a big deal that shifts like this are happening at UW, which is one of the institutions in the U.S. where the dance program has begun to incorporate changes in their curriculum to embrace dance styles that fall outside of the Western concert dance styles which are the norm in dance education. Dance majors at UW must now take classes in four different dance forms before selecting what they’ll specialize in, and UW has added progressions of classes in culturally-rooted styles like Salsa, Tango, and African dance. Despite the room for growth that still exists, opportunities like this concert and the support it shows for choreographers from outside the canon of Western concert dance are huge steps in the right direction towards incorporating more diverse cultural representation in college dance programs. 

UW Dance Presents ran January 18-21 2024 at Meany Studio Theater. 

To learn more about the recent updates to the dance department curriculum, read:
https://crosscut.com/culture/2023/01/uw-dance-pivots-toward-more-accessible-diverse-curriculum

To learn more about white supremacy in college dance curriculum read:
https://www.dancemagazine.com/are-college-curriculums-too-white/