Seeing the Ancient Anew

Seeing the Ancient Anew
June 19, 2017 Deanne Gertner
Photo by Peter Strand. Image courtesy of Zikr Dance Ensemble.
Photo by Peter Strand. Image courtesy of Zikr Dance Ensemble.

Photo by Peter Strand. Image courtesy of Zikr Dance Ensemble.

Zikr Dance investigates the sacred movement of ancient world cultures through a multi-faceted contemporary lens as dynamic and fluid as the rituals it honors. Ancient Shadows performed at Colorado Ballet’s Black Box Theatre on Saturday, June 10th, for the third in a demanding tour of six performances across the metro area; in addition to Grand Junction, after only three weeks of rehearsal time and the new addition of seven teenage apprentices. As part of the company’s eighth season, Ancient Shadows features seven works that showcase the gamut of the company’s repertoire: drama, ecstasy, discipline, repetition, lyricism, and joy. By evening’s end, you’ll have experienced these essential elements of ritual, sacrifice and religion viscerally and metaphysically.

The performance begins with the world premiere of “Ancient Shadows,” inspired by the peoples and religions of the Amazon rainforest, specifically Quetzalcoatl, the main deity of Central and South American belief systems, whose name means feathered serpent. High in theatricality with a full set complete with totems and smoke as well as intricate and elaborate costumes, the work features powerful movements from the male dancers as the Matis blowgun hunters, eerie, spider-like moments by the Amahi-teri Underworld Spirits, and a mesmerizing almost sinister performance by Melissa Zoebisch as the Amahi-teri Underworld Goddess. Tracy Jones-Estevez is especially stunning as the Yanomani Shaman in a full head-to-toe body suit that lets the long lines of her limbs take center stage.

Due to the Black Box’s stage/audience set up, the work felt physically and emotionally overwhelming at times such as the spinning of the blow guns, which the hunters helicoptered round their heads at lightning speeds. As the performers moved downstage towards the audience, the whipping sound and fanning of the air set me into a true panic with tears streaming down my face while I laughed at my own ridiculousness of being afraid at a dance performance. However embarrassing, my outburst speaks to Zikr’s ability to deeply connect with its audience’s raw emotions.

Photo by Francisco Estevez. Image courtesy of Zikr Dance Ensemble.

Photo by Francisco Estevez. Image courtesy of Zikr Dance Ensemble.

“The Trembling Dervish, Ho Yah, The Four Prophets” features near-militaristic yet meditative repetitive movements and chants. The company appears penitential in their brown smocks and white turbans, whether prostrate on their knees or standing soldier-straight in short lines. A single dancer circles a central figure with seizure-like tranced movements during the “Tremblish Dervish”.  For “Ho Yah, Four Prophets,” the dancers en masse chant “Christ,” “Mohammed,” “Buddha,” and “Llama” before rounding off in smaller groups to create a kind of prayer song.

“Altar,” featuring Ryan Lee and Sean Omandam, integrates ballet, gymnastics, and yoga into a nearly tantric piece. The lighting and costuming bathes both dancers in gold, their muscles and tendons shimmering under the light. Lee’s delicacy pairs well with Omandan’s muscled strength for a gorgeous pas de deux.

“Guides” features an exquisite pas de trois with Francisco Estevez, Tracy Jones-Estevez and Tyler Rhoades. Jones-Estevez’s poetic grace coupled with her incredible precision of movement nearly sucks all the air from the room. Rhoades and Estevez act as her spirit guides or protectors throughout the piece. The program says some spirit guides live as energy in the cosmic realm or as light beings.

“Cham Mandala” references the secret ritual dances of Tibet’s Buddhist monks. Nearly as dramatic as “Ancient Shadows” with its costuming, props and use of spotlights, the piece creates striking images: a cross-legged man being wheeled across stage in a crib, a group of skeletons emerging from a waving tarp, a man frozen in a silent scream to the heavens. Perhaps most stunning is a moment where Gregory Gonzalez, seated on the floor, spins Melissa Zoebisch, who is in on point, by her thigh as her upper body dips towards the floor. Ben Winegar then takes over spinning Zoebisch in a vertical split.

“Time’s Up” provides the apprentice dancers with their most significant amount of stage time before the company’s principals come in. Zikr’s Artistic Director, David Taylor, utilizes diagonal formations especially well in this piece and plays with on-stage and off-stage moments, ending with a dancer being caught from a leap half off stage. This work investigates linear time and the collapse of past, present and future. As with other works, the repeated chanting of om creates a meditative and reflective space for the entire theater.

By turns alien yet primal, strange yet familiar, harrowing yet serene, Ancient Shadows showcases the depth of Zikr’s historical research, the wide range of its creativity and the breadth of its dance talent.


Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art.  She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group.  Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.

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