Symbiosis shines in Coalesce’s spring showcase

“Earthy Creations”, choreographed by Abby Kotar '24, Lucinda Thompson '24, and Nia Bethel-Brescia '25. Performed by Abby Kotar '24, Alex Tansey '22, Kaitlin Gelman '24, Lousia Baldwin '25, Lucinda Thompson '24, Maia Beaudry, and Nia Bethel-Brescia '25. Photo courtesy of Nina Fishman ‘25.

For most of Vassar’s history, there existed a small brick building that served as a receptacle for storing bulk amounts of coal awaiting distribution. In 1994, this building became the Shiva Theater. Perhaps even now, there are signs that the location is a former coal bin—its squat nature, dark walls and semi-industrial construction certainly render it distinct from the other theaters on campus. But on the night of April 2, the Shiva roared to life with the arrival of Coalesce Dance Ensembles’s spring showcase, a collection of numbers performed and choreographed by the ensemble’s twelve members. Packed into one of the Shiva’s one hundred and twenty five seats, I was endlessly impressed by the dancers and the performance, and found the show to be absolutely fantastic. 

But I don’t say that with any degree of authority. I know nothing about dance, or choreography—I would even go so far as to say I have no rhythm. I couldn’t pretend to offer a single informed critique on the art form that I witnessed, as someone who undoubtedly falls into the lowest common denominator of dance exhibition attendees. Yet, the show undoubtedly impressed me, captured me and most importantly, made me think. I thought, specifically, about the following two questions. 

The first question, which arose as I absentmindedly re-read the front of the program between numbers, is: What is the significance of the name “Coalesce?” There is probably a correct answer to this were I to ask a member or two, but that isn’t exactly the point; rather I wondered how the performance itself expressed the idea of “coalescing,” a verb which represents the act of many disparate parts coming together to form a whole. The second question, a potentially more ambitious one which I hope to answer from my exploration of the first, is: What does the non-dancing layman get out of a dance show? That is to say, just as the aim of stand-up comedy shows are to make the audience laugh, is there a similar goal to dance showcases for those who are not invested in the medium? 

“Sophomore Slump”. Choreographed by Abby Kotar ’24 and Kaitlin Gelman ’24. Performed by Abby Kotar ’24, Ellie Whiteman ’24, Kaitlin Gelman ’24, and Lucinda Thompson ’24. Photo courtesy of Nina Fishman ‘25.

If I had to describe Coalesce’s spring showcase in one word, I would say that it’s raw. Very, very raw. The choice of venue, the most minimalist and unflashy that Vassar has to offer, I now understand was certainly on purpose. There is no set, and there is no backstage: performers wait outside, in the corners of the beachers, or behind a small curtain where the speaker hides. The show is not long, with a brief intermission. The costumes, while being perfectly fitting for every number and impressively choreographed with each other, are simple and don’t try to make their own statement. Perhaps most notably of all, numbers aren’t announced; there is no talking save for a brief introduction. 

Perhaps this is all standard for dance shows. Perhaps not. But because I am not a seasoned attender of these events, I want to analyze this in a vacuum, none particular to whatever industry standards might exist. And with regards to just how raw, just how unflinchingly and minimalistically presented the entire affair was, I thought it was genius. Nothing made a statement except the dancers themselves. There was no flashiness to distract me from the core of the show, the talent. This was not a jam-packed spectacle that happened to feature dancing. No, I feel that all of these decisions were put in place to make this show about the dancing, with no doubt about it. And although I found that to be an impressive call, it makes both of my questions harder to answer. If there was a spectacular set and flashy, handcrafted costumes and bold interludes, it would be easy to say that the “coalescing” was contained within the synthesized multimedia experience, and the appeal to non-dancers were the non-dancing features—the auxiliary features to tide over those not as familiar with the art form. But there is no easy out when the show is little but the dancers laid bare. 

In reviewing the show and attempting to answer these questions, it seems reasonable to begin with the aspect of the show that was most familiar to me—the musical accompaniments. Each of the showcase’s nine fantastic numbers were set to a specific song, an eclectic mix of iconic pop, alternative, art-pop and experimental tracks. 

The first number immediately hooked me with the rocking nostalgia of “Toxic” by Britney Spears. Certainly, the recognizability was the goal of including this pop hit as the first piece, but I think its inclusion goes deeper. This is a song that even I’ve danced to over the years; after all, who hasn’t? Dancing to “Toxic” is a phenomenon that stands on its own, and we as audience members indulge in its comforting familiarity, projecting ourselves onto a time in which we acted just as the performers did (albeit less gracefully). For me, that moment exists as a childhood birthday party set in a poorly lit yet lushly carpeted basement, dancing to the song on Just Dance on the Wii. But of course, the carefully and brilliantly choreographed number was far more technical, far more organized than any casual Britney jam session, the ultimate evolution and logical conclusion of thousands and thousands of people dancing to “Toxic” without a care for technique. 

I believe this is where the idea of “coalescing” first enters the show: Taking hold of a universal string of experience—dancing to a legendary pop song—and injecting it with enough attention and devotion that it is taken to the technical extreme. A coalescing of experience, of disparate parts to a greater whole. 

“Code Karma”. Choreographed by Henryk Kessel ’25 and Talia Roman ’25. Performed by Abby Kotar ’24, Ellie Whiteman ’24, Henryk Kessel ’25, Kaitlin Gelman ’24, Mady Ockner ’25, and Talia Roman ’25. Photo courtesy of Nina Fishman ‘25.

With Toxic, the layman is not forced to ask themselves questions about why the song was chosen, or what the significance of the number could be. This is what makes it a good opener,  allowing  us to conveniently avoid our latter question of what a dance show means to someone like me. One other song in the roster, the sexy spy-themed “Bad Karma” by Miley Cyrus, serves a similar function later in the show. But the other seven songs are not like this at all; in fact, they are all just unique and strange enough to have the opposite effect in terms of mass accessibility. There are two numbers that strike me in this category. 

What does it mean to dance to a regretful, decidedly non-rocking ballad about a party gone wrong? Or an experimental trip-hop song about losing control? As it turns out, Coalesce shows us that it means quite a lot. These two numbers, which feature “Tommy’s Party” by Peach Pit and “Figure 8” by FKA Twigs, respectively, caught me completely off guard in the best way possible.

I am familiar with and love both of these songs, but the idea of dancing to them is something that wouldn’t ever cross my mind. For me, dancing to a song is a function of reacting to a song with an intrinsically dancey beat, a party song with a catchy and upbeat rhythm. Now, no longer was I watching a talent-enhanced reflection of myself dancing to a popular single. Dancing to these two songs leaves the realm of “dancing” in the popular sense, and enters a completely different realm. Art, perhaps? 

The songs “Tommy’s Party” and “Figure 8,” featured in the two dance numbers that I found most thought-provoking, both evoke strong emotions: melancholy reflection and distressed frustration, respectively. Certainly, these emotions are both part of the universal experience, relatable in some way. Some audience members have doubtlessly heard these songs, and have unique emotional attachments to their contents. Others certainly heard these songs for the first time as they emanated from behind the pale curtain on the back left of the stage. But at that moment, we all watched Tommy complain about being abandoned at a party and feeling lonely. We all watched FKA Twigs become overwhelmed by the complexities of femininity and betrayal. 

Maybe I’m not the first to claim that dance universalizes that which music fragments. But it came to me, as I watched the members of Coalesce move effortlessly to songs I would never imagine could be danced to, that a dance is like a thesis statement to a song, a way of crystallizing a single set of human movements to a song with countless interpretations. I might have had a completely different relationship with the song “Figure 8” than another audience member, but now we both share the experience of having seen it adapted to a performance. In humanizing the song, it humanizes us. Or, of course, you could say it coalesces everyone’s different experiences with music into a single, commonly shared routine. Which it did, wonderfully. 

This is a part of the review where I wish I could use my knowledge of choreography to explain just how these extremely talented dancers channel the emotion of these songs and the seven others. Unfortunately I cannot, though I encourage reaching out to the group via instagram @vassarcoalesce if you have technical questions. Though, perhaps the fact that the talent of the showcase and its success in delivering a message was not lost on even on such a dance-uninformed soul is significant in itself. 

For my last note on the performances themselves, it would be irresponsible not to focus on two specific moments of literal coalescence in the acts, the moments that are the closest to seeming like intentional references to the group’s name. The piece entitled “Sophomore Slump” (the number in which the song is “Tommy’s party”) begins and ends with the four dancers huddled in a pile on the group, like a morning glory flower expanding out into the rising sun and closing back into a bulb come dusk. This gave the impression of the dancers being one, singular unit that separate only to dance—I could almost believe that behind the stage, the twelve dancers exist as one singular melded entity, more than titularly fitting. And of course, I would be remiss not to mention the final number, the only piece in which every member of the troupe is onstage. “Full ensemble,” the program boldly proclaims. 

Throughout the performance the dancers move in unison, and they exist mutualistically. They are aware of their infinite individual power and their complete reliance on each other. Like a single organism. Like an animal is a coalescence of cells. It was this conclusion that forced me to conclude that an ensemble name I originally found obtuse could not have been anything different. 

Abby Kotar ’24 performs in “Sophomore Slump”. Photo courtesy of Nina Fishman ‘25.

Now I want  to zoom back out from the individual performances and talk about the show as a whole once again. In fact, I want to go back to the beginning. In the introduction to the performance, given by Coalesce President Kaitlin Gelman ’24, the audience is told that recording and photos are encouraged. I found this surprising. Surely, they are making a significant sacrifice, or raking a significant risk, in allowing this. Although they requested that flash be turned off, approving this seems like it would provide countless ways to make the performers nervous, or distract them. There’s a reason live performances are usually synonymous with controversy about phone usage—even Mitski, an artist with a song featured in one of the numbers, has recently been protesting the distracting use of phones in concerts. But not here. 

Every sacrifice is taken with the goal of achieving a benefit, and the benefit to this one became clear to me after thinking about it for a while. Although the show’s stylistic features are minimalist, they want its impact to be maximal. Coalesce wanted videos to be shared, photos to be posted, and the show to be talked about. The scope of the performance was intended to span far beyond what happened in the Shiva during that hour, to influence campus life beyond itself. There is no better example of this than the show’s photographer, Nina Fishman ’25, who produced hundreds of photos from the show to share with the world and add to her portfolio. 

The best college events have a high degree of symbiosis with their campus. The show happens, it becomes a part of people’s Saturday night activities, people post about it and get likes, photographers are hired to photograph it and gain notoriety, the photos grow the notoriety of the ensemble in turn, and the whole community grows symbiotically. That is, all of the disparate parts that make up a campus coalesce into a stronger community. There is more than enough evidence, I think, to claim that this dance ensemble does this on purpose. 

Something I have been thinking about since I first learned about the show is that “Coalesce” is a strange name for anything because it’s a verb. It is much more common for things to be named after nouns. Here, though, I think it fits wonderfully. A verb is an action word, a word that represents something being done—which I feel is telling of the Coalesce functions. Sure, there is action in the powerful and dynamic movements of the dancers. But there is also action in the way I entered the show knowing essentially nothing about dance or knowing why I should care, and left with an expanded appreciation of musical universality, and the role of disparate parts in a larger web of community. 

The Shiva hasn’t been a coal storage unit for twenty-eight years. But that night, it burned bright nonetheless. 

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