Escape isolation and find hope in ‘Utopia’

The experience of living through COVID-19 has been a crisis of immense magnitude, so it is not surprising that there has been an outpouring of dance creations around that experience.

For an industry whose vocation is centered around the body and touch is key, social distancing and isolation were foreign concepts to the dancers and their companies. But like everyone else, they turned to Zoom and connected virtually. Now, despite venues being open again, audiences returning indoors, and the pandemic not being at the forefront of conversations, some artists continue to share works that reflect on COVID-19.

One such person is choreographer Paula Mann, whose “Toward Utopia” opened Thursday at the Minneapolis Center for the Performing Arts.

The work was divided into seven different sections, performed by an ensemble of five dancers. Throughout the sections, a tug-of-war of chaos and stillness ensued as the dancers searched for a better spot.

Mann incorporated gestures from everyday life and modern culture, making a shrug part of a larger sequence, for example. He also employed distinctive abstract phrases, such as a back kick done with a bent leg as the dancer leans forward. Often a dancer would originate a series of these peculiar movements and then the other performers would repeat them.

The work was performed to a moody sound score by Tarek Abdelqader, against a backdrop of video projections by Steve Paul, beginning with a shot of an apartment building. What at first seemed like a still photograph turned out to be a video. Cars passed by on the street, the wind blew the yellow leaves off the trees. And the dancers seemed to be dancing in an urban park.

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Paul’s projects blurred as the piece progressed, morphing into abstract shapes. The visual component reflected the arc of the dancers’ journey as they navigated from isolation and egotistical individualism to working in communion and connection.

Dancer Leila Awadallah put on a mesmerizing performance. Both grounded and fluid, her arms reached out to the horizon and the sky with an energy that seemed to shoot with light. Near the end of the piece, Awadallah appeared on stage with a projector, showing Paul’s work to the other artists and then to herself.

The compelling moment offered a glimmer of not only hope, but also a spark of optimism for a new kind of future.

‘Towards utopia’

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Performing Arts Center, New Black Box Theatre, 3754 Pleasant Av., Mpls.

Tickets: $20, pay as possible per matinee,

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