Classical ballet and sacred, spiritual-based dance may not appear to have much in common at first glance, but Denver’s Zikr Dance Ensemble may just prove the opposite. Artistic Director David Taylor fuses the rigorous repetition of ritual with the grace and beauty of ballet in Samsara, playing next at the Lone Tree Arts Center, Saturday, June 11 and Sunday, June 12.
With a four-decades-plus career in Denver’s ballet community under him (first at Colorado Ballet, then running his own David Taylor Dance Theatre for twenty-six years, while teaching at Denver Ballet Theatre), Taylor has deep connections as evidenced by his five guest artists from the Colorado Ballet and the culturally diverse company (50/50 male/female) , all of whom are classically trained in ballet. Such honed skill and international talent lends itself well to Zikr’s singular exploration of spiritual dance from ancient world cultures.
Zikr, as defined by the ensemble’s website, means “the remembrance of God.” Coming from Sufism, the inner mystical dimension of Islam, it is associated with repetitional devotional acts. Repetition plays a large part in several of the performances in Samsara, beginning with “Zikr: The Whirling Dervishes.” Dervishes first appeared in the 12th century as part of the Sufi religious order and were known for their wild and ecstatic rituals. Zikr’s dancers form a circle around the dancing master or semazenbashi who guides them through the ritual. The dancers each spin individually while moving in a circle around the dancing master, with single dancers, at times, speeding up their turns. Anyone who has ever tried to turn in circles can appreciate the difficulty of the choreography. As Zikr’s program describes, the dancers try to channel the positive divine energy down into their bodies while filtering the negative energy into the ground, spinning to achieve a trance-like state and “unification with the divine.”
The second piece, “Altar”, was most stunning, artistically and technically, melding spirituality and sexuality into a dramatic and rapturous performance by Ryan Lee and Kurtis Irwin. The piece begins with Irwin bent over an altar. He moves across the altar at times like a gymnast on the parallel bars, and at other times as a worshipping, yogic devotee. His strength, flexibility and grace are in full view at all times under the gilded stage lights. Lee enters center stage, ascending the altar on pointe, where she captivates the audience with the delicacy of her footwork. The costumes, the music, the altar, the movement all lend to a feeling of Ancient Egypt meeting Tantrism.
The third work, “In Your Eyes,” is set to a live recording of Peter Gabriel’s song of the same name. The full ensemble participates in this exuberant piece. Fire dancers hold small, flickering flames in their hands, which add a level of mystique. A recurrence of the meditation pose appears throughout. While the individual dancer’s technique and form were impeccable, this piece often suffered from a lack of synchronicity, which caused parts of the work to feel disjointed and jarring.
“Sadhu,” the fourth work, takes its title after a religious ascetic or holy person who has renounced the material world in pursuit of spiritual practice, wandering from place to place, owning nothing and solely dedicated to achieving liberation. The work begins with the ensemble dressed in hooded, red robes with their backs to the audience for quite a while, so long that the first dancer to turn and face the audience feels like an unexpected gift of attention. The dancers work in tandem beautifully in this piece, and the pairs dancing especially works well as the female dancers swing from the necks of their male partner like a human pendulum, at once profoundly touching and heartbreaking.
Before “Walking Prayer” and “Notes Values” Taylor briefly addresses the audience with the historical importance behind both, which are derived from the Armenian mystic and teacher, George Gurdjieff (1870-1949), who designed over 250 movements to cultivate “presence of being” or what we’d call being in the present moment today. “Walking Prayer”, staged by Deborah Longo, features the ensemble in a tight group repeating a series of motions again and again with slight variations. The white jackets and pants coupled with the dancer’s black sashes give the performance an almost tai chi-like quality. “Note Values,” staged by Taylor, is less rigid yet equally grueling with a repetitive pattern of arm motions. In near militaristic unison, the ensemble functions as a single, cohesive unit during these deceptively simple, yet demanding movements.
After a second twenty minute intermission to prepare the set, the ensemble returns for “Samsara,” an homage to the cyclical nature of all life tied to the karmic theory of many Eastern religions. The work begins with four men dangling from the rafters on ropes. Slowly, each one is lowered to the ground. Set to music by Yes, the piece feels simultaneously ancient yet futuristic as space, New Age, and indigenous collide while the female dancers perform on pointe, for a final classical twist. While the ensemble works well together with the energetic, multifaceted stage direction, the dancers and the choreography is best during trios, duets and solos: Courtney Hellebuyuck as the Dancer on coals of fire and Lee, Francisco Estevez and Irwin especially shine. A moment when Estevez flips Lee up over his shoulder is particularly arresting for its beauty and surprise.
Referencing spiritual traditions from Eastern Europe to India and back again, Samsara leaves you wondering if perhaps the best way to practice spirituality is through the body. For those of us who’ve chosen a more secular path, dance may just provide our saving grace.
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.