Revealing the Labor of Dance Through Constant Motion

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Abby Zbikowski’s voice can cut through the loudest drums.

It was a Friday morning in April, and a thunderous beat reverberated through a spacious, window-lined studio in the dance department of the Ohio State University. Zbikowski, a choreographer and teacher, stopped the beat for a moment to ask her students a question that seemed at odds with the high-powered phrase they were performing.

“How,” she said, “do you make yourself relax?”

While dipping forward, could they release their hair in order to feel the weight of their bodies? Could they find a moment in which they didn’t have to push? How could a sauté jump, nestled into a lateral, forceful twist, not look quite so much like a sauté? She demonstrated the feel of what she was after — less polished, more wild. “Because you are swinging and launching your guts around,” Zbikowski said. “How can you ride it more?”

Zbikowski, 38 — tattooed and lively, with a devilish smile and an affinity for poetic soliloquies about energy and effort — is not your typical experimental dance artist. She is, in part, pursuing something slightly out of fashion in more cerebral contemporary dance circles: constant motion. One element of her technique class is running. Real running, not what she referred to as dance running. She likes to tell her students to imagine she is chasing them with a pitchfork.

“The rigor of my technique classes does feel like manual labor,” Zbikowski said. “But it’s a chosen one.”

Abby Zbikowski in Columbus, Ohio. “The rigor of my technique classes does feel like manual labor,” she says. “But it’s a chosen one.”Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Beginning Wednesday, her company, Abby Z and the New Utility, presents “Radioactive Practice” at New York Live Arts, where it was originally scheduled to be performed in March 2020, when the city went into lockdown. It still features dramaturgy by the Senegalese dance artist Momar Ndiaye, her partner, with whom she has a nearly 1-year-old son. And it remains physically arduous, though the cast has shrunk to six from 10 because of the pandemic — some dancers have moved away or moved on.

Using an array of movement practices — cast members have experience in street dance, modern and postmodern dance, hip-hop, contemporary African forms and tap along with synchronized swimming, soccer and martial arts — “Radioactive Practice” braids emotional toughness with unrelenting physicality, which transports dancers from the floor to the air. As a result, something else emerges: a bold new energy that speaks to survival and purpose as dancers strive to move beyond physical and mental limitations.

On the surface, it seems like Zbikowski’s aim is to push the body to it limits, but her work — with so many movement forms on display — also grapples with deeper questions. She wonders how bodies are conditioned mentally and physically? How are we shaped by class, race, sexuality and gender? Can what has been conditioned in us mutate? Can it evolve?

And of the elements that condition us, she asks, “how do you carry them in your gut, how do you carry them in your flesh and bones?”

“All of that comes out in the work,” she added. “I think what I’m after is the discipline of disciplines.”

Kancey in “Radioactive Practice.”Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

There is obvious athleticism in “Radioactive Practice,” but there is more than sheer physicality; within the driving movement is the dancers’ presence, “their heart and souls,” she said. “And again, the gut that is being carried through space.”

Zbikowski, a former field hockey goalie, has trained extensively in African and Afro-diasporic forms, including at Germaine Acogny’s École de Sables in Senegal. But tap was her first love. “There was something about the feeling of the rhythm,” she said. “It wasn’t about what it was looking like. That has always spoken to me; it was about the feeling, and it was about what was being produced as a result of what you were doing.”

All of her training and education, which includes an M.F.A. from Ohio State, has helped frame her sense of how a dancing body can defy labels. “Having this Africanist, Afro-diasporic training, but also being who I am, being this white girl — and not in a demeaning way, but just understanding what that is — what do I do with this information?” she said. “I think it’s taken me a long time to understand that this has, little by little, been building my world and understanding for what the body can do.”

Zbikowski grew up in South Jersey, which meant that she could travel to Philadelphia for dance classes; it was at a time, she said, that hip-hop was moving into studios. At Temple University, she studied the contemporary African form of Umfundalai. (In Swahili, she said, it means “the essence.”) While there, she also met the choreographer and dancer Charles O. Anderson, who is to become chair of the dance department at Ohio State in June.

A “Radioactive Practice” rehearsal. Zbikowski has her dancers run — real running, not what she calls dance running.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Anderson, whose background in Afro-contemporary forms includes performing with the choreographer Ronald K. Brown, met Zbikowski when she was a freshman. “She was such a powerful performer and so keen in terms of wanting to understand the nuance and shape of my movement,” he said.

An early supporter of her choreography, Anderson admires how open she is; how her work is inspired by Africanist forms but doesn’t appropriate them. “I think this is the interesting thing around class — Abby is so decidedly aware of being from a working-class background from New Jersey,” he said. “That ethic of working, I think, helps her in a lot of ways to appreciate what’s been offered rather than feeling ‘it’s mine to take’. And so not only does she honor it in words, but also in the rigor in which she really tries to find what is the movement saying to her specifically.”

“She knows the shoulders she’s standing on,” he added, “and, yeah, I love her for that.”

In March 2020, when the scheduled performances of “Radioactive Practice” were in flux but not yet canceled, Zbikowski told me that she felt she could make work that could survive the apocalypse. “It’s kind of like a cockroach where there’s a durability, there’s a toughness to it, there’s a ruggedness to it,” she said then. “It’s adaptable according to who practices it. And it can live in a lot of different spaces.”

At the time, a question remained. “Can it survive quarantine?” she wondered.

Now, more than two years later, she knows that it did. “It shape-shifted and permutated in new ways, but it’s still there, and I think it’s even stronger,” she said. “It’s a bit of a superbug now. It knows itself more.”