COLUMBUS, Ohio — Abby Zbikowski’s voice can cut through the loudest drums.
It was a Friday morning in April, and a thunderous beat echoed through a spacious, window-lined studio in the Ohio State University dance department. Choreographer and teacher Zbikowski paused for a moment to ask her students a question that seemed to contradict the powerful sentence they were playing.
“How,” she said, “do you relax?”
As they dip forward, can they let go of their hair to feel the weight of their bodies? Could they find a time when they didn’t have to push? How can a sauté jump nestled in a side force twist not look so much like a sauté? She demonstrated the sense of what she was looking for: less polished, wilder. “Because you’re swinging and launching your guts around,” Zbikowski said. “How can you ride it more?”
Zbikowski, 38 – tattooed and vivacious, with a devilish smile and an affinity for poetic monologues about energy and effort – is not your typical experimental dance artist. In part, she is chasing something out of fashion in more cerebral contemporary dance circles: constant movement. Running is part of her technique class. Real running, not what she called dance running. She likes to tell her students that they imagine she is chasing them with a pitchfork.
“The rigor of my technique classes feels like manual labor,” Zbikowski said. “But it is a chosen one.”
Starting Wednesday, her company, Abby Z and the New Utility, will present “Radioactive Practice” at New York Live Arts, where it was originally scheduled to run in March 2020, when the city went into lockdown. It still features dramaturgy from Senegalese dance artist Momar Ndiaye, her partner, with whom she has a nearly 1-year-old son. And it remains physically demanding, even though the cast has shrunk to six out of ten due to the pandemic — some dancers have moved or moved on.
Using a range of movement practices – members of the cast have experience in street dance, modern and postmodern dance, hip hop, contemporary African forms and tapping along with synchronized swimming, soccer and martial arts – “Radioactive Practice” weaves emotional toughness with unwavering physicality, that transports dancers from the floor to the sky. As a result, something else emerges: a bold new energy that speaks of survival and purpose as dancers strive to move beyond physical and mental limitations.
On the surface, Zbikowski’s goal seems to push the body to its limits, but her work—with so many forms of movement on display—wrestles with deeper questions as well. She wonders how bodies are conditioned mentally and physically? How are we shaped by class, race, sexuality and gender? Can what is conditioned in us mutate? Can it evolve?
And of the elements that condition us, she asks, “how do you carry them in your belly, how do you carry them in your flesh and bones?”
“That all shows up in the work,” she added. “I think I’m looking for the discipline of disciplines.”
There’s obvious athleticism in “Radioactive Practice,” but there’s more than sheer physicality; within the driving movement is the presence of the dancers, “their heart and soul,” she said. “And again, the gut carried through space.”
Zbikowski, a former hockey goalkeeper, 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 looked like. That has always appealed to me; it was about the feel, and it was about what was produced as a result of what you were doing.”
All of her training and education, including an Ohio State MFA, has given her insight into how a dancing body can defy labels. “I have this Africanist, Afro-Diasporic education, but also who I am, this white girl – and not in a demeaning way, but just understand what that is – what am I supposed to do with this information?” she said. “I think it took me a long time to understand that, little by little, this has built my world and understanding what the body can to do.”
Zbikowski grew up in South Jersey, which meant she could travel to Philadelphia for dance lessons; it was a time, she said, when hip-hop moved 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 choreographer and dancer Charles O. Anderson, who will become president of Ohio State’s dance department in June.
Anderson, whose background in Afro-contemporary forms included performing with 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.
Anderson, an early adherent to her choreography, admires how open she is; how her work is inspired by African forms, but does not make them her own. “I think this is the interesting thing about the class — Abby is so clearly aware that she comes from a working-class background in New Jersey,” he said. “That ethic of work, I think, helps her in many ways to appreciate what’s being offered rather than feel like it’s mine to take. And so she honors it not only in words, but also in the accuracy with which she really tries to find what the movement is saying to her specifically.”
“She knows the shoulders she stands on,” he added, “and yes, that’s why I love her.”
In March 2020, when the scheduled performances of “Radioactive Practice” were in motion but had not yet been cancelled, Zbikowski told me she felt she could make work that would survive the apocalypse. “It’s kind of like a cockroach with a durability, a toughness, a robustness,” she said at the time. “It is adaptable to who practices it. And it can live in many different spaces.”
At that point, one question remained. “Can it survive quarantine?” she wondered.
Now, more than two years later, she knows it. “It changed shape and changed 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.”