Assistant Professor Kaustavi Sarkar and visiting artist Monali NandyMazumdar perform “Vibhatsya: Deconstructing the Smile.” Photo by Jeff Cravotta.

What does it mean to be human? On Sept. 28 and 29, the Department of Dance asked and offered answers to this question through its Faculty Dance Concert, presenting five diverse pieces of choreography that addressed the political as well as the existential.

The concert began with the haunting “Vibhatsya: Deconstructing the Smile” in the style of Odissi, a classical East-Indian dance form. The piece addressed the expression of grief and trauma and how the smile plays a role, specifically in reference to school shootings and the proposed solution of arming school teachers.

The piece was choreographed by Assistant Professor Kaustavi Sarkar and performed by Sarkar as well as visiting artist Monali NandyMazumdar. When the audience first witnessed both dancers on stage, only one was visible. They danced in unison, but for NandyMazumdar, we could only see her shadow. The movement was distorted; we could see what it was supposed to be like as it was displayed on Sarkar, but as a shadow, it was twisted and stretched.

In Odissi, the head and face play a huge role. Sometimes the head is isolated and nimbly shakes back and forth; sometimes the eyes are isolated from the head. Sarkar used the importance of the face to quickly display emotion, abruptly switching from what seemed like a pleasant smile to horrifying grief. Several times when she broke this smile, she slowly cradled a baby, signifying the loss of students in shootings. Included in this piece was a repeated phrase: “The silence of the damned; the body count is on your hands.” Sarkar showed us what it’s like to be human through her expression of emotion and the conclusion she pulls from it in the context of today’s political realm is that we cannot be bystanders.

This call to action was echoed in two other pieces: “!,” choreographed and performed by Assistant Professor Tamara Williams, and “Picaro, pedazos de un camino (Pieces of a Journey)” by Assistant Professor of Physical Theater CarlosAlexis Cruz.

“!” was a contemporary-modern and African-inspired piece “dedicated to the lives lost to the senseless violence of racism, misogyny and homophobia.” It specifically referenced Draymen Mason (a double-bass-playing college student killed in the Austin bombings) and Marielle Franco (a Brazilian activist and councilwoman who was assassinated) whose lives were both taken this year. The piece included four short parts, each to a different piece of music. Each piece had multiple layers and could really each be lengthened into its own piece.

Williams looked beautiful, wearing a long white skirt and her hair down. At some moments, she celebrated with quick, upbeat movement; at others, she despaired with slow, longing movement. At the beginning and the end, she stood in a single spotlight and slowly reached upwards. She was asking for something or someone; she was calling us all forth.

Carlos AlexisCruz performs “Picaro, pedazos de un camino (Pieces of a Journey)”. Photo by Jeff Cravotta.

Cruz’s piece allowed for comic relief even for a topic that isn’t at all funny. Through masks, spoken word and physical theater, Cruz started the story of a 13-year old Guatemalan boy who is forced to leave his home and travels to “The Land of the Free” for a better life (it is only an excerpt). He was accompanied by musician Shamou, who at many times provided the comedy, especially when sporting a skull mask and chasing Cruz around the stage.

Cruz told us the story of the boy and then, by calling forth a member of the audience onstage as well as asking for other audience participation, literally brought us into the story, thus inviting us to get involved in the issue of migration.

While the first three pieces asked us what it means to be human today, the last two broadened to ask what this meaning is everyday.

Associate Professor E.E. Balcos danced and presented spoken word in the structured improvisation “Reunion of Kindred Souls.” He was accompanied by Shamou, who sat onstage to make a soundscape using a series of metal cups and bowls which he clinked together, rubbed and sang into. The effect was hypnotizing. Balcos recited some translations of poems by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, which addressed “the secret inside of us,” meditation and inner reflection. Balcos moved throughout the stage gracefully and then would occasionally sit with Shamou to make sound.

Associate Professor Gretchen Alterowitz, Alison Bory and Amanda Hamp (AGA Collaborative) started their piece “It’s five o’clock somewhere (selections)” by bringing out lawn flamingos and setting them onstage. The three danced to Madonna, The Go-Go’s and to a female dance competition judge who urged the dancers to fly and suspend in the air (at which point AGA Collaborative slothed across the stage). As the piece moved on, more flamingos were added, ending with one giant flamingo floaty on which all three dancers lay and contemplated what it means to be present, among other things.

Both final pieces, whether in earnest or in humor, sought to question more of an inner human experience. What does it mean to be present and how can we be present?

All art seeks to investigate humanity, but dance in particular uses the most human canvas of all, the body. Watching movement is a very intimate and engaging experience; the audience has the same instrument as the performer. All five pieces used this platform to ask what humanity is, offering the conclusions that you must be active and you must be awake.