Elementary Forms

In the center of the dark space a woman in black held a silver bowl. Around her stood a circle of seven women in simple dresses, three in dark purple, four in pale blue. Seated around them on the wooden floor of the University of Chicago’s Bartlett Arts Rehearsal Space, a cramped crowd of about a hundred watched quiet and captivated. The woman in black split the circle and moved around the outside. She reached into the bowl and brought out bread, handing pieces to the dancers, who spread themselves across the few feet of the floor to distribute pieces to the crowd around them.

The “Communion” piece came towards the beginning of “Ritual,” a dance performance organized by nine students from the UofC that made a short run of three shows last weekend. The dancers choreographed their own pieces, combining elements from dance traditions as diverse as Indian classical dance, flamenco, and ballet, setting them over mostly modern music, familiar to their college-aged audience. The performance focused on the universal importance of ritual; directors Amulya Mandova and Virginia Rangos wrote in the program that they were inspired by French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s ideas of collective effervescence.

The early “Coming of Age” number followed the social initiation of new members in light blue by the priests in purple. In “Seduction,” a flamenco-inspired rhythm and guitar line played around three dancers whose twisting motions and flowing sashes evoked sexual initiation. In the later pieces, conflict arose within the society of dancers, and a piece of cloth became a blindfold across the eyes of a condemned girl.

The performance itself had the effect of ritual. The dancers were in total physical commitment. They hit the ground hard, and in one striking moment, a young initiate fainted backwards towards the floor, and one of the veterans swooped to catch her head a few inches from the floor. What might have been a few missed steps and stumbles in timing were part of the nervous energy at the center of the scene, and even the clanking of the doors of the rehearsal space didn’t seem to distract from it.

The dancers ended with a namaskar, a South Indian tradition where dancers pay their respects to the universe by stomping on the ground beneath them. With the last stomp, the performance was over, and after a brief moment the dancers relaxed their bodies. For an instant, though, nobody seemed to realize that the ritual itself was over, and that the women in front of them were embracing as people and not performers.

For the first time in forty minutes, the crowd broke out into noise. They moved towards the center and congratulated the dancers, bread still in their teeth.