Published May 4, 2018
The UB dance program is headed for the national stage.
A dance choreographed by MFA student Naila Ansari Woods has been selected to be performed at this year’s National College Dance Festival being held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
The dance, “Mine Eyes Have Seen,” will be performed by UB undergraduate dance students. It is one of only 30 dances selected from 13 American College Dance Association regional conferences to be performed during the national festival June 6-9. Adjudicators at the Northeast regional conference called the UB dance “a physical manifesto of the here and now.”
Ansari Woods says her thesis work focuses on using archival materials to generate movement. “This is such a strong era of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and there’s something in this that I had to figure out how I could create this choreographic lens as a dance maker.”
With that in mind, Ansari Woods sorted through archival materials of protests from the civil rights era to now. As the process went on, she was given the opportunity to create the piece with undergraduate dance students.
“It was great to take this process and put it on undergraduate dancers,” she says. “We’d sit down in the studio and I’d show them the exact images that I had and we discussed what happened historically in that moment and reimagined it.”
The result, set to Jon Batiste’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Les Tambours Du Bronx’s “Black Bull,” is a portrayal of society through historical gestures. These gestures, like the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture, are unsettling. And Ansari Woods takes these gestures to another level by considering who performs them.
“A lot of the movements I chose were people of color being oppressed,” she explains. “We had a conversation about who gets to do these gestures and what meaning comes from doing them. I thought if I put these gestures on white bodies in a performance lens, then maybe people can have empathy for these gestures. Seeing black bodies doing these gestures is nothing new, but seeing white bodies physicalize them in a space of performance is a little tricky.”
The audience also is able to interact with the dance directly, making the experience even more engaging.
Kerry Ring, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Theater and Dance, calls the piece “truly a blend of activism through art.”
“The integration of the audience within the dance performance breaks down the fourth wall and empowers the audience,” Ring says. “If they are open to it, this dance literally gets the audience moving, thinking and seeing a vision of the Black Lives Matters movement.”
While producing a dance at the Kennedy Center is a memorable experience for Ansari Woods, it’s also noteworthy because she is a member of the first cohort of UB’s MFA in Dance program.
“This MFA program has so much to offer, even if it’s new. My professors definitely pushed me to think differently, and this is a product of what the program has to offer,” Ansari Woods says.
“This is very exciting to us in the theater and dance department,” adds Ring. “It confirms that we have a solid base to grow from in the future. Performing at the Kennedy Center is an incredible platform to showcase our undergraduate dance majors performing MFA choreography. This will bring all the right attention to our well-established and developing UB dance program.”
While Ansari Woods is pleased that her choreography has been so well received, she is even more delighted that she gets to challenge people in the process.
“I want people to inquire about what is happening in our society,” she says. “I don’t necessarily need them to come home with the feeling that ‘this is how [the dance] is supposed to end or that it’s a great final product.’ I want the audience to keep questioning what they saw so that they can think differently for themselves.”
Undergraduate students featured in the cast of “Mine Eyes Have Seen” are Olivia Bergmann, Dana Colligan, Bianca Dam, Tori Gorny, Lilibeth Javier, Rachel Latke, Hannah Lucas, Caroline Sheehan and Erica Sedor, understudy and stage manager.