UpClose: JUST Dances helped audience truly feel impacts of social problems | VailDaily.com

UpClose: JUST Dances helped audience truly feel impacts of social problems

By Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to the Daily
Charles “Lil Buck” Riley performing during the Vail Dance Festival. His work at UPClose: JUST Dances explored police bias and brutality.
Erin Baiano | Special to the Daily

One of Vail Dance Festival’s most unique qualities revolves around collaboration that wouldn’t happen otherwise, as dancers from across the globe work together to create new pieces. 

Since 2007, the festival has presented UPClose dances. These intimate evenings reveal the process behind works created, or morphed, during the two-week festival, through live interviews with the dancers and choreographers.

This season, Artistic Director Damian Woetzel took the UPClose dances even deeper, by asking dancers to choreograph pieces that explore social injustices close to their heart. The result was an exquisite evening of meaningful and moving performances at the Vilar Performing Arts Center Wednesday, July 31. 

The night began with an unforgettable film, “The Color of Reality,” by Lil Buck and Jon Boogz. The pair used art and dance to express the injustice of police bias and brutality. The film’s message hit home as Lil Buck and Jon Boogz, both painted in shades of blue, purple and yellow, attempted to interact with people of “no” color. The fact that the pair chose to paint their entire bodies with “color” really showed the absurdity — and pain — in rejecting people because they’re not the same color. 

Lil Buck and Jon Boogz followed the film with a dance illustrating the walls people put up and how love can break down walls in “Love Heals All Wounds.”

A second film by the pair came about because both men have friends who have been in and out of the prison system. In it, Buck, who elevated street dance and jookin by mastering traditional ballet techniques, and Boogz, who takes popping to another level, express their emotions through street dance — most notably performed in orange uniforms while handcuffed or behind bars. The spoken word plays over their movements, pointing out racial bias in the criminal system.

Hope Boykin expanded upon the theme of love as she spoke her poetry and danced with Lauren Lovette, accompanied by Kurt Crowley on piano. Lovette masterfully interpreted Boykin’s words through her modern dance. During Boykin’s interview with Woetzel, she revealed that in the poem, she is talking to herself as that self steps out of comfort zones. 

“She serves as an example of being a better me,” Boykin said.

During their performance of “MomentsUponMoments,” the pair moved from wanting a man to love them to the more empowering stance of loving yourself first and then living “in the light of the gifts you’ve been given.”

“I Have a Dream” broadened the idea of love and living in your highest self as Dario Natarelli tap danced to Martin Luther King’s rhythmic speech. Natarelli makes the musicality of King’s speech apparent through his tap sequences, which impeccably punctuated King’s ideas, while his upper body expressed the words in an impactful manner. The pairing of tap with King’s speech gave the message even more depth, given that tap dance originated when owners of slaves prohibited the use of drums or other instruments, so slaves developed elaborate heel and toe tapping rhythms.

Artist-in-residence Lovette presented a pared down, yet still very poignant piece about same-sex relationships. The topic resonated with her, she told Woetzel, because she grew up in a Baptist church, which preached that same-sex love was a sin, yet many of her friends in the dance world are gay. Her piece, “Good Light,” featured two women dressed in cut offs intertwining in a mesmerizing and seamless dance.

Before Unity Phelan and Calvin Royal III danced “Agon,” Heather Watts (who danced in the role previously) gave the audience context: In 1957, George Balanchine choreographed a pas-de-deux in “Agon” specifically for a black man and a white woman. At the time, it was scandalous. 

Last Wednesday, Phelan and Royal displayed amazing strength and tender beauty in the pas-de-deux with her extraordinary leg extensions and grace and his intensity and power.

While all of the pieces were very impactful, Lil Buck nailed it in the last performance of the night: “24th.”

As Caroline Shaw provided vocals, Buck contorted his body through his extraordinary ability to control each muscle fiber, depicting the pain of the government suppressing voting rights. Beginning in shadow and walking into light, Buck’s fluid and precise movements and momentary poses embodied the torture in suppression and the potency in freedom. 

UpClose ended with a lively standing ovation, but its message continues to reverberate in the minds and hearts of many, as they not only witness, but feel, social issues exposed through movement.