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Darkenwald’s Quantum: Dancing the Unseen

by Spencer Bennington
Guardian contributor

Photo by John Dixon.

Photo by John Dixon.

Take a look around you. What do you see? Tables? Chairs? A picture on the wall? Look closer. Can you feel it? Within each of these seemingly inanimate objects, on a smaller scale than the human eye can see, units of energy simmer and swirl beneath the surface. Luckily for Teal Darkenwald, East Carolina dance professor, the human soul is not so blind.

“I don’t see things as other people see them,” Darkenwald assured me. “I’m a researcher too, so a lot of my work has the underlying physiological themes because those are the ideas I’m inspired by.

If you attended ECU’s Dance 2015 showcase in February, you had the pleasure of enjoying many fine pieces of all different styles—but one of these performances stood out from the rest because of its combination of the aesthetic and the analytic. Darkenwald’s Quantum is described in the program as “relating to a small speck of energy that has been subdivided from a whole. This work represents the contraction and release of energy that bubbles beneath the surface of seemingly immovable objects.”

Roughly a nine minute performance, Quantum tries to provide an audience with an appealing visual representation for an otherwise theoretical, albeit wildly significant, natural interaction. From the outset, the twelve dancers move across the stage in a way that suggests a push/pull motion without actually touching one another. These movements could represent the almost magnetic trajectories of certain quanta. At other points the motion is more linear: dancers rush from the wings almost as if embodying a single ray of light.

“Really it’s an abstraction of all of those things,” Darkenwald suggested. “I produced a piece called Fallout a few years ago, so I think, maybe subconsciously, I was inspired by those ideas on some level.” But knowing that the connection between the two wasn’t even necessarily clear to her, Darknewald explained that “when an audience member watches the dance, they’re not seeing what I see and that’s OK, I don’t want them to. I would never tell an audience what to feel. I hope they see all the pockets of energy—simple as that. Even though, for me, the piece happens to be much more.”

Scientifically, a quantum can be defined as the smallest measurable unit of an energy source. For example, a photon is a quantum of light. When I asked Darkenwald to talk about what larger energy source she saw her Quantum being a part of, she smiled. “It’s almost cellular for me.” I took that to mean that the piece is reflective more of life as an energy source. Perhaps it is a quantum of cooperation? “What’s so fantastic about art,” Darkenwald replied, “is that a piece is as deep or as surface-level as you want it to be.”

Photo by John Dixon.

Photo by John Dixon.

But Darkenwald couldn’t deny that the entire development process of this piece was one fueled by the energy of collaboration. While she choreographed the dance, the music was composed in-house by Eric Keil, a lighting and sound technician in the Theatre and Dance department. The two have worked together over the past four years and reached a relationship of creative fluidity according to Darkenwald. “When you have someone you work with frequently, you don’t have to have endless conversations. I let his music inspire me.” In fact, Keil was the one who actually titled the piece after seeing an early performance. “Erich said ‘it looks like this’ and showed me this picture from outer space with all this swirling purple, teal and steely gray light.” Interestingly enough, by this time, Darkenwald had already agreed on a color palette for the costumes with student designer Allyson Mojica that matched this scheme to a T. “The costumes even had sequins that looked like the stars in the visual Erich showed me—we were all totally on the same page.”

Darkenwald was insistent that any good production should be a synthesis. “If all the components of costume, lighting, choreography, music etc. don’t come together,” she said, “then you’re not doing your job.”

Darkenwald extended this mentality to her audition and rehearsal process as well. “I didn’t have the dancers audition with a phrase from this piece because I wanted to give them the opportunity to shock me out of my own creative biases for what the dance should look like.” Similarly, Darkenwald describes how “when you’ve been choreographing for a while, it becomes more process oriented.”

She described how accidents and mistakes often help develop the dance from a concept to the final performance. “When you’re younger, you want to plan everything, but I do better work when I let the dancers inspire me.

Quantum is certainly a beautiful example of how the story of every audience member combines with the story of the stage to create that fusion of energies to push us all forward. “What I love about modern dance is that it’s abstract enough to where I’m not telling you a narrative—you may come up to me and have a detailed interpretation about how the dance was all about women with superpowers, or you may just say ‘wow, that was a really hot jazz piece’ and both are completely correct.”

For now though, as you go about your day, look closer. Remember that every footstep is the combination of unseen mass and energy, every action we take is but a quantum of humanity, a brief movement in the dance of living energy. Take a second to celebrate and sing the joys of being a part of something so very complexly dynamic in its beauty.

Please enjoy selections from Quantum. Choreography by Teal Darkenwald. Music by Erich Keil. Costumes by Allyson Mojica. Original video footage by John Dixon. Video editing by Denise Cerniglia.

For more information on Teal Darkenwald, the ECU School of Theatre and Dance, or upcoming performances, check out their website

Spencer Bennington is an adjunct Composition professor and freelance writer who hopes to be enrolled in ECU’s English Doctoral program in the Fall.

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