Dance on the Darkest Night

ZUZI! members take to the trapeze and the dance floor to celebrate the winter solstice

At winter solstice next Tuesday, the northern hemisphere will tilt as far away from the sun as it does all year, and the sun will arc at its lowest point in the southern sky. The hours of darkness will outnumber the hours of light.

"The solstice is a real thing in nature," says Nanette Robinson, artistic director of ZUZI! Dance Company. "The days are short, and the nights are colder and darker. It's like the death of the sun. It gives us a glimmer of our own vulnerability, our own shadow."

Emulating the old-time rituals that helped people in centuries past get through the dark winter, ZUZI has marked the solstice with a dance concert every December for the past six years.

"Every year, it has its own flavor," Robinson says. This year, for the first time, a concert will be given solstice night, Tuesday, Dec. 21, at the ZUZI Theater in the Historic YWCA, as well as on the usual weekend nights.

The seventh edition of the solstice concert, Luminescence, offers up modern dances based on African and Russian folklore, as well as pieces on the trapeze and on the floor, choreographed by numerous ZUZI members. Now 13 dancers strong, the company gives way for one number to Many Hands, its youth aerial troupe. In addition, 13 community members perform a workshop piece of their own creation.

Six local musicians play original compositions live for five of the nine dance works, creating music on everything from traditional piano to West African drums.

"It's exciting for us to have live musicians," Robinson says.

Her "Cradled Seed," a big, 15-minute dance for the entire company, is punctuated by the West African drums, played by Martin Klabunde with flute music by Elena Martin. Robinson said the spirit of solstice helped her decide to put all 13 ZUZI dancers on trapeze in the piece.

"This time of year, things are unknown. We hope for renewal in the new year. There's the idea of raw potential--and the trapeze is a new experience for a lot of the company members. There are five trapezes, and everyone gets the opportunity to dance in the air and on the ground."

Robinson's other large work, "Cocooned," has dancers "flying and dancing with fabric. It's the first time we've done fabric." Lindianne Sarno plays original music on violin and piano, and Niel Dunn, who accompanies the UA dance division, adds percussion.

"It's very collaborative with the musicians," Robinson says.

"Cocooned" is about the "cycling of time." Its multiple inspirations include a Russian folktale about spinning. In the story, "at solstice, the spinning stops," Robinson says, representing the dangerous moment "when time stops." A competing theme, about the strength of community, draws on a dream she had about fire.

"I saw a flame in the center with cords of light coming out, and wrapped around people's waists. They were walking around the fire," she says. Like the people in the dream, the dancers are on "different pathways" but "they're all connected."

Nathan Dryden, a fine trapeze dancer who performs with all the local modern companies, turns choreographer with "In Our Dreams," an adaptation of a piece he staged for NEW ART last June. Six dancers take to the air on trapezes, including Robinson herself, Greg Colburn, new company member Scott Bird, Nicole Buffan, Yumi Shirai and Kim Kieffer. The nine-minute piece, danced to taped music, has a "quality of sadness and longing," Robinson says.

The 11 kids of Many Hands also fly through the air in "Medicine People," a trapeze piece choreographed by Robinson and ZUZI managing director Emily Willard. The dancers, ages 9 to 14, will be accompanied by Sarno on piano, playing her own composition of the same name.

"Most dancers begin on the floor," Robinson notes. "These kids began with aerial dance. They're so full of creativity and enthusiasm."

Company dancer Ojeya Cruz Banks, working on a doctorate in African cultural studies, recently spent several months in Eritrea, at the northeastern end of Africa. Her work, "Redsea Dreams," featuring nearly the whole company, comes out of that experience, Robinson says. Another company member, Wendy Joy, choreographed "Pathways," an athletic work for four, about the energy running through our bodies.

The aptly named Abigail Stage and Zan Savage, "two wild women," Robinson calls them, will dance their own improv duet, "Touch and Go." Musician Andes Chicko will accompany them live on an assortment of percussion instruments, from drums to whirligigs.

"The duet is about give and take," Robinson says. "It's not set to prescribed rules."

Stage and Savage also directed the community workshop piece. A feature of nearly every ZUZI concert, it will be performed by 13 non-professional dancers. Ranging in age from 10 to 70, the dancers met for six weeks with Stage and Savage. The piece they created "focuses on the cycles of the moon," Robinson says. "It came out of their writing what the solstice is all about."

The concert runs without intermission, clocking in at just more than an hour. It begins and ends with matching large group pieces. The opener, "Love Will Find You," was choreographed by Willard. The entire ensemble, pro dancers, community members and kids, will dance to the live piano music of Michael Lewis.

"It's inspired by the song 'Love Will Find You,'" Robinson says. "But it's a larger concept about the love of community, not just romantic love."