This theme gave us freedom to choose inspiration. Art gives the show a more cohesive feel. We are all from different dance backgrounds, we bring different styles, and being inspired by art ties the show all together,” shares Erisa Nakamura (C’19). 

Erisa and Emily Johnson (E’20) are sitting next to each other on the first floor of Houston Hall. Behind them is a brick wall and fireplace that I have never seen lit. Erisa is sporting a black, long–sleeve with a CURATED Penn Dance patch on the top left. Her encouraging nods are coupled with expansive smiles. Emily is wearing a white shirt also with black Penn Dance text, layering the tee with a black and white turtle neck. 

Every spring, the Penn Dance Company creates an independent show with a different theme decided among the graduating class. This year, the Company put on the show CURATED, which was based on works of fine art, artists, or art movements. Before each piece, the screen was projected with a work of art, and the dance following is inspired by the choreographer's interpretation of the art. 

The theme was inspired by Erisa's ideas. She's had the idea since freshman year, when she was at the Barnes, and thought it would be a good place for a promotion video. Then, she began to think it would be an even better idea for a full show. 

Previous graduating classes have been heavily composed of STEM majors—last year’s show, titled de | construct, was inspired by exploring what happens when things break down and come apart. Erisa and Emily share that this theme is definitely a departure from the past show. Yet, Erisa assures me that, “it is only a theme, it doesn’t change the heart of the company or how we dance.” Johnson adds, “we are all artists first, so it does not matter what you study, you are there to study dance.”

Photo: Gracelynn Wan

This show was much earlier than their previous show dates, and the Company only had eight weeks to prepare. For each piece, the dancers rehearse once a week, so there were only eight rehearsals total.  

On Saturday, I sit down in the wooden seats at the Iron Gate Theater. The crowd is full of extraneous chatter and enthused friends. As the lights dim, and the voices hush, the screen projects its first art piece, and the dancers begin. 

After speaking about Erisa and Emily's favorite pieces, I rightfully anticipated my own favorite piece. As Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘Sky Above Clouds IV’ appeared on the screen, I moved to the edge of my seat. Emily let me know beforehand that the dance is “based on the philosophical idea of bad faith—the idea that people end up doing things for the wrong reasons, that they feel they have to, so they are no longer free as a person.” Erisa added: “the choreographer thinks that the opening up in the painting shows release from the idea of bad faith.”

At first glance, the painting is reminiscent of fractured pieces of ice floating above water. Yet, on closer inspection, there's a horizon of baby pink and hues of purples coalescing with orange. The vertical skew reminds us we that are moving upwards, thereby separate from our pasts. At the same time, the disjunction between the clouds—welcoming slits of blue—replicate the ability to disconnect from our histories—still keeping a careful eye, but from a higher distance.

The swift, practiced movements of the dancers communicate exactly this point, of opening up and taking control, coupled with vulnerable emotion. The creativity, freedom of expression, and inspiration shines through. The dancers each bring their own to the dance, but within the same cohesive theme.

Erisa ends with: “Penn Dance is filled with artistically talented people; whenever I see someone else’s choreography I am just blown away, it’s indescribable. People put so much emotion and passion into the way that they dance.”

Emily joins her, smiling: “I am so impressed that anyone could come up with those things, and watching it enacted by the dancers is really beautiful.”