Pandora’s Box, which I got the opportunity to watch on the evenings of April 24 and 25, was a SAAS dance concert like no other. This performance featured the upper school Advanced and Intermediate Dance classes, as well as the Middle School Dance Project, in pieces choreographed by teachers and some students. Using the ancient myth of Pandora opening a box of darkness as a template, the SAAS dance program created a cohesive show that explored the darker sides of the human condition. Pandora’s Box sustained an emotional and fantastical experience for an entire evening.
After the preamble by the directors Rhonda Cinotto and Alicia Mullikin (guest-instructor and co-director), the audience watched the introductory dance “Pandora’s Box.” Literally portraying the mythical box opening, the Middle School Dance Project emerged from a triangular formation of open cubes. The dancers slithered out of their containers then hit a dark and abrasive pose before collectively strutting into a choreographed dance. As this opening piece progressed, the dancers’ movements grew more excited, elongated, and comprehensive. The growing culminated in Fiona Kubalak’s ‘21 desperately reaching hand getting shoved into a box by the dark emotions the other dancers represented.
The viewers were set up to watch deconstructions of greed, isolation, hate, war, despair, fear, envy, and death. Each piece reminded the audience, through abstract images of the body, what those concepts mean on literal and emotional levels.
Many pieces had a set structure, the Middle School dancers would give a shorter “Part I” opener to piece, followed by the Intermediate or Advanced Upper School dancers in the longer “Part II.” Though the Middle Schoolers’ pieces were shorter and dealt with their respective subject on a more superficial level, they were important introductions to the longer and emotionally demanding upper schoolers’ pieces. The complete show was a masterpiece of construction and performance
Of course, singular images stood out. In “Greed,” featuring Intermediate Dance, a chain of robots dressed in business suits folded and unfolded a ladder with their arms. In “Isolation,” Karina Sato ’16, sitting on the edge of the stage, was offered help by Jaliyah Putney ’17, and then she stood up and danced, through forceful rolls and kicks, a skillfully performed solo, thus giving the viewers a glimpse of the pain of being ignored by so many others. In “Hate,” after a repeated sequence of dancers pacified each other’s violent arms, Priya Gopal-Walker ’16 and Jackson Gannon ’16 danced a duet of careful jumps and carries, still filled with passion and sadly ended with separation. In “Death,” Elaine Stachowiak ‘16, while being literally tied to seven other performers, gives a last goodbye to Ronan Hagarty ’15, who lifts her, falls down with her, and holds her head in his palms. The dancers in these moments used their bodies and faces to excite and move the audience.
But the students showed their talents not just by dancing. Five students (Juniper Darrow ’17, Rockee Adams-James ’15, Ronan Hagarty, KathLene Stokes ’16, and Jai’el Putney) took on the challenge of choreographing a piece. For each of them to create a dance piece, they not only came up the material to dance, but also worked with the lighting designer Walter Kilmer, the costume designer Chrstine Tchirgi, and the live accompanist/composer Daniel Mullikin (whose cello and loop pedal performance shocked, pleased, and exhilarated me on its own).
For example, in “Fear,” choreographed by KathLene, the lights started incredibly dim, such that the silhouette of Rockee, in a handcrafted loose column dress, was barely perceptible. As Rockee crossed and eventually found the center of the stage, Mullikin’s bow creaked across his strings and the other dancers crawled out on all fours from the corners of the stage. The creaking echoes, the dark crawly things, and a stranded girl combined to create a full mood of paranoia and machination, all curated by one student, with the help of SAAS’ teaching resources.
These performances went through a full range of emotions. There were short and comedic interludes: when Jai’el rejected Elaine Stachowiak’s classic yawn-to-arm-over-shoulder move, when Jamara Putney ’21 took a big tear out of a paper heart after the rest of the Middle School Dance Project fawned over their own, or when Lily Wong ’21 scared away the other dancers with her bazooka gun.
There were also small and poignant moments: when dancers lifted a reaching Molly Boyce ’17 and carried her in the direction opposite of her intention, when Isaiah Barnett ’16 pulled the arm of Arianna Fardad ’16 who in response desperately ran to center stage. And perhaps most importantly there was hope, not just from seeing the people attempt to overcome these dark emotions, like Rockee’s leaps and turns breaking free of the “Fear” around her, or the two couples kicking and forcing the greenlit “Envy” that was Ronan to the ground, but also the entire finale.
Choreographed by Cheryl Delostinos, the ultimate high of the show came after the ultimate low, a literally sobbing ensemble at the end of Death. “Hope” started with the three seniors in Advanced Dance, Ronan, Rockee, and Sabrina Batingan ‘15, on a stage that was so quickly illuminated with such a bright blue that it hurt my eyes. The dance of those three, with its lifts and codependent leans, showed the audience strength through companionship and, as the seniors are joined by an ensemble, we see that together it may be possible to overcome the darker sides of humanity.
True artists are hard to find, but when found they must be treasured. The depth, emotion, and thought that the dancers coming from this SAAS dance program’s exhibition engages, not only their audiences, but also themselves. They could not help but cry during the final performance of Death, and such a breakdown I do not see as unprofessional, but rather beautiful. Those performers were so dedicated to their art, they let it consume them, and watching that is not a common occurrence. At the very next opportunity, I encourage anyone with a passion for humanity to check out the SAAS dance program and its magnificent performances.