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UCI Dance Department Takes the Stage for First In Person ‘Physical Graffiti’ Since the Pandemic

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The dance department at the UCI Claire Trevor School of the Arts (CTSA) presented “Physical Graffiti” at the Claire Trevor Theater from April 28-30. The performance was presented by artistic director Lindsay Gilmour and several undergraduate choreographers.

“Physical Graffiti” takes place annually during spring quarter and features works from undergraduate student choreographers who set their pieces on fellow undergraduate dance students. The choreographic process for this performance is lengthy, and devising these starts with typically an idea or song. The students who are pursuing their Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFAs) in choreography may have been brainstorming these works since their freshman year, while others may have acquired inspiration later in their dancing journeys. With these ideas, seniors and juniors hold an audition open to dancers inside and outside of the dance major program. Every dancer that is cast is specifically chosen for a piece that may cater to the choreographer’s vision. Based on the stylistic choices of each choreographer, each piece may involve ballet, modern, contemporary, lyrical or hip-hop dance. In the audition, dancers are expected to be well-rounded in each category. After casting, the work begins, including decisions about costuming, lighting and props — all important parts of the “Physical Graffiti” process. 

After months of rehearsals, 13 pieces are chosen by dance faculty members to be performed on stage. The pieces feature different themes such as joy, loss, vulnerability, passion and mental health. Each piece has different lighting and costuming. With the help of the drama department and the backstage crew, the collaboration between the two art departments makes this show possible each year. This year’s “Physical Graffiti” was a performance full of individual minds working toward a vision that celebrated the  CTSA dance department and all of its accomplishments. 

The night started out with the audience ushered into the Claire Trevor Theater, the largest venue on campus, seating 300 people. The audience full of family, friends and supporters of the dance department waited eagerly in their seats for the show to begin. Each performance was about seven minutes long, starting with the piece, “Still Here,”  choreographed by third year performance dance student Hannah Albin, which was danced to the beautiful classical piano score, “Photograph,” featured in the Oscar-nominated movie “Her.” The dancers floated to the music peacefully as it guided their steps. The second piece, titled “Meek,” was choreographed by third year dance student Paloma Perez-Rojas and featured the dancers as mimes, moving in almost clown-like rhythms. Each dancer played a different character, conveyed through their movements and miming. Fourth year performance dance student Natalie Palmgren performed as a soloist in this piece, contorting her body in specific ways and using theatrical facial expressions under white face paint to give the audience a pantomime experience. 

Palmgren also choreographed the seventh piece in the show, “Hangry,” which was a crowd favorite. This piece featured the dancers as chefs and was inspired by the movie “Ratatouille.” The dance started with eight dancers in aprons, plaid pants and different colored Converse shoes posing in different ways with red painted pots and pans. The music began with sounds of kitchen work, pots being washed and plates moving, which really gave the illusion that the dancers were cooking in a kitchen, especially with the open theater as a backdrop. The chef dancers posed behind a scrim, a piece of gauze cloth that appears opaque until lit from behind, used as a screen or backdrop, while one dancer in an elegant black dress sat at a table, patiently waiting for their meal. The dancers used expressive motions and facial expressions to tell a story of creating the best soup. They danced around and added salt to the soup, which seemed to be a little too much, and this made the “head chef” dancer with the biggest chef hat pass out. At the end of the dance, the soup is saved with all of the dancers chaotically adding their own flavors to the soup, earning a large round of applause before the curtain went up and the audience waited for a brief intermission. Palmgren talked about her process of creating this work. 

Photo Credit: Skye Schmidt

“For this project, I took inspiration from music, however I was also driven by narrative. ‘Ratatouille’ was one of my favorite movies growing up. I particularly enjoyed the scenes that highlighted the chaotic kitchen dynamics as well as the characterization of [the] food critic. While I had a concept, the material that developed in each rehearsal gave me a new departure point to continue developing the concept and characters. I am so proud of the finished product and am so grateful for my dancers’ willingness to experiment with me in this process,” Palmgren said. 

More pieces followed the intermission, including a hip-hop-esque performance titled “Creator” choreographed by third year choreography dance student Zachary Medina. The dancers in this piece danced to the song “Creator” by Santigold and wore dinosaur masks around their mouths. The audience cheered as each dancer poured their energy into the steps, creating an electric performance full of hard-hitting poses and formations. The last three dances of “Physical Graffiti” featured works by dance students Lauren Duran, Cierra Torres and Freya Starks and closed the show beautifully. 

Starks, who is majoring in choreography dance, created a piece titled “Unveil Yourself” as the finishing act. With nine dancers on stage, each wearing a black unitard and veil, this dance especially drew in the audience as the intensity of the movements relayed back to a story of being vulnerable. The dancers utilized every part of their spines and legs, with the black unitards especially highlighting their flexibility. Starks’ theme for the piece was inspired by her own mental health journey with anxiety. 

“I try to collaborate with the dancers during rehearsals — I’ll give them a word like grief, sadness, depression, anxiety, and I’ll make them do one or two gestures that relates to them personally for each word. I have a general idea [of] what my piece is about, but the veil — it represents something different for each dancer,” Starks said. 

Photo Credit: Skye Schmidt

This year’s “Physical Graffiti” was significant because it allowed dancers to be able to dance in front of a live audience again. For the last two years, COVID-19 has impacted so many artists tremendously and prevented them from sharing their gifts with others through performing. During the pandemic, the dance department performed most of their 2020-21 performances virtually. Ashley Onks, a fourth performance dance student who performed in Starks’ piece, shared what “Unveil Yourself” meant to her in her final year at UCI and getting the chance to dance on stage again. 

“The meaning behind the piece resonates with me a lot as a senior, as I am now going out there into my life, but now I am going to be really vulnerable putting myself out there, kind of taking off my veil,” Onks said. 

With 13 amazing works filled with creativity and ample passion for physical movement, the audience left reflecting on each piece’s magnitude, translating it into their own lives. “Physical Graffiti” keeps the UCI dance department at the forefront of arts education and performance, impacting and training dancers for their future careers both in and outside the arts. 

Photo Credit: Skye Schmidt

Moorea Pike is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at