When Ohio State University’s Department of Dance was looking for a space to create this year’s “Dance Uptown” performance, things got dirty.
For their stage they chose the Plumb Hall Agricultural Arena, a space with vaulted ceilings and a dirt floor that is sometimes used for showing farm animals.
“It’s very challenging to work in the dirt,” said Esther Baker-Tarpaga, an assistant professor and one of the show’s two choreographers. “The dancers were up for the journey.”
Before she started choreographing, Baker-Tarpaga had her students “source movement from the site.” That meant mimicking animals walking, rolling around in the dirt, kicking the dirt and even building dirt sand castles.
“It’s interesting because some of the students would really go for it and run around and get really into the dirt. Some just ate the experience up; others were more cautious,” Baker-Tarpaga said. “All of them have a different approach.”
She used her observations of their original explorations to create her piece for “Dirt,” called “Oh, Darling. The Dust Never Settles.” Two live musicians playing an electric guitar and djembe, a West African drum, will accompany the student dancers.
“It’s about love and struggle,” Baker-Tarpaga said. “It is very site inspired. There are love duets. There is pushing and pulling tension in the pieces. It is about different human relationships … This work is contemporary, post-modern dance theater. There is a highly urgent kind of feeling in the piece.”
The messy site also inspired the performance’s costumes. During practices, dancers wore goggles to protect their eyes from the dirt. Others wore long-sleeved shirts and handkerchiefs that covered their mouths.
“It had this post-apocalyptic kind of feeling. One student described it as being very steampunk,” Baker-Tarpaga said. The look worked so well with the dance’s phrases that she used the look as inspiration for the costumes audiences will see this weekend.
Professor Bebe Miller also choreographed a work for “Dirt.” Called “Our Town,” the piece was influenced by the grandiosity of the arena.
“It’s a vast space,” Miller said. “It has this character of its own. It affected the physicality of whatever we were trying to figure out ... it was almost like we were trying to figure out how we owned the space. I think originally it was going to have a lot to do with rock ’n’ roll, grinding funky things. But the dance got quieter and quieter as it established a mood for itself.”
The students “will never forget doing their dance in the dirt,” Baker-Tarpaga said.
Viewers likely won’t either.