The Umbeck Science and Mathematics Center (SMC) hosted something new this weekend: a dance performance. Friday and Saturday night, several Knox dancers used SMC as a performance space for the partially improvised and partially choreographed work created in collaboration with Ready at Will, the dance residency that has been teaching classes — and dancing in SMC — for the past week.
The audience initially stood outside, looking back into the building through walls of glass to see both levels of the building. Dancers emerged out of the biology wing, lining up behind and next to each other, pacing at different speeds, some beginning to run, some sliding along the glass walls; others bumped into their fellow dancers to create traffic jams. Never once did they look at the audience, completely engaged in their own world, unaware of viewers. Eventually they began to disappear in the stairwell, only to reemerge on the level above to repeat the same type of movements.
At one point during the piece, three non-performers wandered into the downstairs hallway. Within a few steps they had registered the audience staring at them and froze, starting to laugh in an embarrassed way and backing up the way they came.
The juxtaposition between people aware of being watched and the performers, who seemed almost to be on display, was extraordinary. More than anything, the consciousness of being viewed by the non-performers highlighted the relationship that can be established between an audience and a dancer.
The dancers concluded the piece by freezing in the upstairs hallway before running, for the first time as an entire unit down the hallway leading to the library. At this point the audience was led upstairs, passing the library with people inside, working and studying as normal, making it seem as if dancing in SMC was an everyday occurrence.
On the second floor were three separate performances. One, taking place in the stairwell, had the audience looking down from the third floor landing to the basement stairs far below, where a dancer was making shapes with her body. In the small conference room off the library, four dancers played with red books — smelling them, placing them on their heads, trading them between each other and sometimes even reading aloud from them as they paced.
A ways down from the conference room, two dancers had managed to squeeze themselves into an emergency shower that was tucked into the wall. Without seeming to interact with each other — nearly impossible in such a small space — they moved around each other, changing levels and seeming to push against the concrete walls holding them in.
As the audience was led downstairs, one more dancer occupied a second safety shower, standing on his head and curling his bare toes in the air. Across the hall, in an open lab, three students — actual students, not performers — were working on physics problems at a chalkboard. Dancers oblivious to the audience, students oblivious to the audience — the effect was to unify such seemingly separate activities.
The next site was a reverse of the first — audience inside looking out through glass walls at dancers outside. Here, the dancers made shapes in lines and stretched out their limbs from behind trees; eventually they lay down on the ground and rolled their way to the steps.
As people walked by on the sidewalk, they appeared to be caught between trying to watch the dancers and avoid the gaze of the audience inside. The performance concluded in a large lecture room as two dancers used their hands, chalk and erasers to explore the composition of the chalkboard. More dancers arose from the desks, sliding over and dropping down the other side. The effect was eerie, the dancers appearing to drop in an endless abyss.
The dance performance was a fascinating use of SMC. A building designed completely without dance in mind made the performance stand out even more. Overall, the performance brought into mind shapes, patterns and motions rather than any unified choreography. It inspired thought, especially of the relationship between performer and viewer — with glass separating the dancers from the audience more often than not, there was frequently a feel of us-watching-them.