“Loss is forever, and grief is everlasting,” Leah Robertson said. “It sits in your pocket as you walk through life, sometimes hardly noticeable, sometimes weighing you down, but always there and always a part of you.”
Robertson, a master of fine arts candidate in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is describing “Vows of Melancholy,” a new work that will premiere March 27 as part of “Pathways,” the PAD’s 2021 MFA Student Dance Concert.
Typically presented in Edison Theatre, the MFA concert has been reimagined for this pandemic year as a filmed, streaming event. The program will feature dozens of dancers performing original choreography by Robertson and fellow MFA candidates Luewilla Smith-Barnett and Thomas Proctor.
“At some point very early in my process, I stopped fighting and just let the pandemic guide me,” Robertson explained. “The number of dancers, the rehearsal space, the film locations and much of my choreography was guided by my desire to respect and protect the people involved.”
For example, in “Vows,” all 12 dancers (including Robertson) remain masked throughout. To maintain social distance, the half-hour long piece was largely built from solos, intercut with short duets, trios and group passages. Each section was filmed separately, such that even Robertson herself never saw the full dance live.
“You’ll notice that no dancers touch throughout the entirety of the piece,” Robertson observed. “What I first saw as a restriction, I began to use to my advantage.”
Also on the program will be Proctor’s “Ubiquitous Plastic,” which explores how society’s careless reliance on plastic, especially single-use plastic, exacerbates environmental havoc.
“I was inspired by a growing understanding of the sheer amount of plastic waste we generate,” Proctor said. By some estimates, nearly half of the 380 million tons of plastic generated each year is for single-use purposes — “an insane amount made worse during the pandemic.”
To illustrate the problem, Proctor instructed his dancers to wash and save all the hard, single-use plastic with which they interacted over a 30-day period. As that archive grew, Proctor began interacting with the material, developing a series of movement prompts that were then extrapolated into larger choreographic sequences.
“The original idea incorporated partnering and props large enough to climb on,” Proctor said. Still, as the pandemic wore on, he had to adjust his choreographic process to accommodate safety measures. Props were scaled back. Dancers were spread apart. Characters and relationships were defined without resort to physical touch.
“I hope that, after my audience watches the performance, they are inspired to look at their own practices in regards to plastic waste,” Proctor said. “Can we inspire change? And how long-lasting is that change?”
As a Muslim woman in the Nation of Islam, Smith-Barnett hopes that her piece, titled “The Sacred Value of Women,” will help to correct erroneous assumptions about her faith. For scriptural guidance, she turned to “Al’Nisa (The Women),” the fourth surah, or chapter, of the Quran. This teaches, as Smith-Barnett puts it, that “both man and woman are made of the same being, which is Allah (God).
“In this concert, I will explore the ideas of oppression, disrespect, spiritual essence, dynamism, strength, royalty, sisterhood and motherhood,” Smith-Barnett continued. “I hope to dispel the myths surrounding Muslim women and promote the upliftment, grace and power of all women.
“The pandemic uniquely affected my audition and rehearsal processes,” Smith-Barnett added. To set the piece, she recruited a handful of professional acquaintances — representing a diverse set of backgrounds, including dance, yoga, martial arts and military drill teams — from Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as student dancers from Washington University Dance Theater and the Washington University Dance Collective (WUDC). Rehearsals were conducted both live (in masked, socially distanced fashion) and via Zoom.
Final filming took place in a mix of locations, both outdoors and in large, well-ventilated settings such as Edison Theatre. The result is a dynamic and uplifting artistic testament “to the divine nature, value and power of the woman,” Smith-Barnett concluded.
“Pathways” will debut via the PAD website at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 27. The production then will be available for on-demand streaming through April 11.
The event is free for WashU students. Other patrons are invited to pay what they can, with a suggested donation of $10. For more information, call 314-935-6543 or visit pad.wustl.edu.