In a world capital of dance critically short on affordable space, the CUNY Dance Initiative has marshaled the resources of the 13 public universities that serve New York City’s five boroughs, providing spare rehearsal studio and theater space to dance artists who work in diverse forms. Of the 115 artists who have taken up residency over the past five years, works by 11 of them were presented (some in excerpt) at CDI’s fifth anniversary celebration.

Ephrat Asherie's Odeon
© Ian Douglas

Across these disparate performances, each dance-maker found an imaginative way to arrange a conversation.

Urban Bush Women’s Jawole Willa Jo Zollar sent Benalldra Williams onstage to ask us to call out the names of people who had raised us up – a spontaneous ritual of recognition that fueled her expansive, explosive dance, called Give Your Hands to Struggle.

Miki Orihara emerged from the carapace of a golden kimono to time-travel a dancer from the samurai era (shirabyoshi) to Martha Graham’s cohort, and put her in confrontation with the modern-day idea of a soldier.

Andrew Nemr recounted how he’d once emailed a mentor, the late, great Gregory Hines, in despair over a romantic breakup. Hines advised him to “dance it out.” Nemr gave us just that, alternately hammering and stroking the floor with all parts of his hard-soled shoes, punctuating his mesmerizing patois with outbursts of beaten jumps.

Loni Landon's For Three
© Ian Douglas

MBDance’s Maria Bauman-Morales, Kayla Hamilton and Alethea Pace inhabited a space between girlhood and womanhood, gently ribbing each other and musing on grown-up mysteries in Up and Down Her Back. They kept up a witty, masterful running conversation while whirling boldly across the stage, tumbling, standing on their heads, and performing other feats of badassery.

Yet three performances proved most compelling to me not for their conversation but for what they did with their form, enlarging our understanding of dance as a material practice.

In Ella, the fiery Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernandez played fast and loose with flamenco conventions to trace the arc of a marriage on the skids. Seated side by side they beat intricate rhythms, marking time with a unity of purpose. But when he started to sing of a beautiful, cruel woman with a “heart of stone” and a man who can’t live without her, whose bones felt like they were “made of glass,” we saw the relationship headed south. At one point, he walked offstage, leaving her to commune with an electronic soundtrack. She started to unfurl from the spine as if in pleasurable anticipation of a newfound freedom – the dance released from the cantaor. But some unspecified threat loomed and she convulsed as if shot. Reaching for imaginary hip holsters, her feet slid along the floor then stuttered in rapid-fire. Fernandez returned, and the couple seemed to reach an entente.

MBDance's Up and Down Her Back
© Ian Douglas

The excerpt from b-girl Ephrat Asherie’s Odeon kicked off with a virtuosic hand-clapping sequence by Matthew “Megawatt” West and Manon Bal that, like the flamenco piece, conveyed a couple’s tight relationship. But as the work engaged with the music of Ernesto Nazareth the relationship that mattered was between dance and score – the latter brilliantly arranged by Asherie’s brother Ehud for piano, bass, and percussion (though, unfortunately, only in recording for this performance.) The music is of a bygone era, not the beats that drive today’s street and house dancers. But Asherie has woven threads from Nazareth’s Brazilian tango rhythms, the social dance moves that have traveled from street to ballroom, back to street, and modern-day elements of voguing, footwork, and popping – all connected to the African diaspora. As in a fugue, each of her dancers seemed to add a new melodic line that developed an existing idea in the score, taking it in a different direction but always referring back to the subject, reinforcing connections down the generations and across continents. Asherie herself and Ousmane “Omari Mizrahi” Wiles completed the dynamite cast.

Sonia Olla and Ismael Fernandez in ELLA
© Ian Douglas

The environment created by choreographer Loni Landon for Nicole Von Arx, Ryan Yamauchi, and Rakeem Hardy in For Three seemed entirely sealed off from the outside world. The dancers twitched, grappled, pulled and pushed each other, and spun on the floor, observing each other with neither affection nor hostility, just a cool curiosity. Movement often surged from a tiny impulse – not always from physical contact but from an invisible force field that seemed to surround each dancer. Every footfall silent in socks, against a barely-there score that at one point sounded like water running over stones, they slithered and tumbled. Von Arx unleashed a fierce solo, arching, sliding, yearning, collapsing. All accomplished without a quiver of emotion. The performances were thrilling; the minimalist concept daring. Great dance doesn’t need to say anything, to relate to anything, to respond to music or sound, to be anything other than bodies moving in space.