Campus issues of a sensitive nature are typically approached timidly perhaps in small discussion groups or piece-meal administrative action but in the Dartmouth Dance and Theater Ensemble’s new show “Undue Influence,” the complicated issue of sexual assault is laid bare on stage in a thought-provoking performance.
“Undue Influence” is an evocative fusion of modern dance and theater that addresses the issue of sexual assault in a college campus environment.
The piece is an artistic portrayal of the darker side of Dartmouth nightlife. Although the show is set in fraternity basements, DDTE’s aim is not to attack fraternities, members said.
“It is in no way the kind of piece that points fingers,” Roni Nitecki ’11, a dancer and a choreographer of the show, said. “[Our show is] investigating the conditions and ways in which we treat each other that can lead to sexual assault happening.”
Lilai Guo ’11, a DDTE dancer who also helped choreograph the show, agreed that the aim is not to blame specific people or institutions, but to spark conversation.
“We’re not trying to preach,” Guo said. “If there is an aim, it’s to get people talking about it. This is what we’ve seen and this is what we’ve heard. We’re not trying to make it into a political thing.”
DDTE usually selects a socially or politically relevant topic to center its Spring show around. Last year, “Viscera: Echoes of War” focused on the implications of war. This year, theater professor Ford Evans, the ensemble’s director, wanted to chose a topic that particularly resonated with the students.
Sexual assault turned out to be a timely subject for the ensemble’s show this year given that the issue which has become increasingly problematic across college campuses has also been one of College President Jim Yong Kim’s focuses, according to Guo.
Although the show primarily addresses sexual assault, the performance is also about Dartmouth’s culture in a larger sense. “Undue Influence” daringly examines the darker implications of being a member of the Dartmouth community and the Greek system in particular.
“The piece helps us understand not only that sexual assault is bad but also the things we do and have been socialized to do that make the environment more conducive to it,” Nitecki said.
Guo noted that although the subject matter is bound to be discomfiting, the show is not meant to make the audience uncomfortable but to provoke thought.
“As long as the audience is thinking, we have served our role,” Guo said. “It’s also entertaining, and I think some people might be shocked.”
Particularly shocking is one dramatic sequence in which the Dartmouth Alma Mater is twisted in an unsettling yet captivating way that exemplifies musical theatre at its most innovative.
Such creativity was the result of many months of preparation, as the DDTE has been working on “Undue Influence” for over a year.
“Ideas came first, and movement after,” DDTE member Annie Munger ’13 said. “First, we thought about what goes into sexual assault, and then developed the movements around that.”
The dancers used the show’s tagline, “What Goes On and What Goes Wrong,” as a basis to generate scenarios.
“It begins with lack of respect, a sense of entitlement to someone’s body, the use of alcohol as liquid courage,” Nitecki said.
Each dancer created a character for themselves, such as a timid underclassman or a confident fraternity brother. During the rehearsal process, DDTE members developed lines and dance motions to fit their characters.
“We did exercises with touch to see at which level touch becomes aggressive or sexual,” Guo said. “We experimented with distance.”
The show proved to be particularly challenging for the male members of DDTE.
“This whole year I’ve been submerged in all these ideas on sexual assault being a freshman, this is all kind of being thrown at me at once,” DDTE member Xander Arnold ’14 said. “But when I’m onstage I have to do the things I’m constantly hearing are bad.”
While few people might think to combine sexual assault and dance, the performers contend that dance is the best medium for approaching such a topic.
“A lot of the things we experience are not verbal and not inherently understood with words,” Nitecki said. “Movement has a primal capacity to make people feel and understand, where words fall short.”
Even so, words are a large component of the show. Each dancer has lines or monologues and the entire piece is narrated by a storyteller. Quotes and facts related to drinking and sexual assault flash across the backdrop of the stage.
Each performance of “Undue Influence” will be followed by a discussion facilitated by college administrators.
“The administration is addressing the topic more now,” Munger said. “The climate is changing on sexual assault.”
The dancers help facilitate the discussion alongside administrators, as many members of DDTE are Mentors Against Violence or members of the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program.
“As a senior, I’ve seen so much more discussion on sexual assault happen since my freshman year,” Nitecki said.
DDTE will perform “Undue Influence” in the Moore Theater at the Hopkins Center for the Arts on Friday, May 20 and Saturday, May 21 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 22 at 2 p.m.