CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The work of choreographer and University of Illinois dance professor Abby Zbikowski is hyperphysical, exploring what happens when a body is pushed beyond its perceived limits and what it means to work toward attaining that level of physical skill.
Zbikowski’s most recent work, “Abandoned Playground,” premiered in New York City in April. A review in The New York Times compared the performance to a sporting event, and the dancers to boxers readying themselves for a fight: “‘Abandoned Playground’ pits these dancer-athletes against the limits of their own strength and endurance … The challenge lies in the ferociously physical steps – an onslaught of thwacking arms, emphatic kicks, dizzying spins, swift somersaults, perilous balances and slippery contortions – and their relentless repetition.”
Abby Zbikowski’s extremely physical dance choreography is a look at pushing the body beyond its perceived limits and how dancers deal with the fatigue of the performance.
Photo by Effy Falck
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“I want someone who doesn’t know anything about art or dance not to be able to look away,” Zbikowski said.
“Abandoned Playground” led to Zbikowski winning a 2017 Juried Bessie Award – a prestigious award recognizing outstanding creative work by a choreographer, chosen by a jury of acclaimed choreographers – announced earlier this summer.
Zbikowski was also recently selected for a newly created choreographer-in-residence program at Princeton University, which is commissioning a new work from her. Zbikowski will create the new dance work during the next two years, working with students through workshops and projects.
She will continue to teach a full load of classes at the U. of I. while working on her new project. She’s starting her fourth year at Illinois, and Zbikowski’s expertise in West African and hip-hop dance forms has helped diversify the dance department’s curriculum, said Jan Erkert, the head of the department.
“She just has an incredible in-depth sense of the culture and history” of the dance forms, Erkert said.
Zbikowski said it is important to her that her students and audiences know the origin of the black dance forms that influence her, and how their history affects the work of choreographers and dancers.
“I’m interested in the future of dance, and where dance can go that is inclusive and can speak to multiple audiences simultaneously,” she said.
Zbikowski began learning tap and jazz dance as a child, before taking hip-hop and African dance classes.
“They spoke to me in their energy and physicality,” she said. “I’m a really kinesthetic person, and my body understands that rhythm and timing and musicality in a certain way.”
Her choreography uses the influences of tap, hip-hop and West African dance in terms of rhythm and how the dancers take up space, but the movements are not taken verbatim from those dance types, she said.
“Her dances don’t look like what you think of as hip-hop,” Erkert said. “Abby is inventing new things from that source. Her work is very interesting and unique. I think people are kind of wowed by it because it’s different, it’s not what we’ve seen before.
“She doesn’t give you a chance to take breaths. In some way, that drives you into a deeper meditation on what she’s doing,” she said.
Erkert said Zbikowski’s choreography often uses a large space with a soloist or a few people dancing within it, but “what they are doing is so intense that it reverberates through the space.”
Zbikowski said her work “is physical from beginning to end, and the spectacle of physicality fades away. You as a viewer have to see the things happening around it. You are invited into the psyche of performers who are hammering away at these tasks and have been going through warfare, both internal and external … (and) the real-time process of dealing with fatigue. You’re up against yourself, and you’re up against audience expectations. Any performer can feel that weight.”