Dance Thesis “Drift” Evokes the Beauty of Loneliness

Senior Theater and Dance major Yang Sun ’24E presented her thesis “Drift” last weekend. Managing Arts & Living Editor Sarah Weiner ’24 reviews the performance, an ode to loneliness and frayed relationships.

Dance Thesis “Drift” Evokes the Beauty of Loneliness
Sun and her dancers used the untraditional spaces of Kirby Theater in “Drift.” Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

“Drift,” a senior thesis in the Department of Theater and Dance by Yang Sun ’24E premiered Thursday, Oct. 26 at Kirby Memorial Theater and showed through Oct. 28. According to the program note, “Drift” is “about communal loneliness as a result of ignorance,” inspired by Sun’s observations of crowd behavior in New York City subway stations. The piece radiates just this — an amalgamation of intense attention to the relationships of bodies in space and the potent absence of even just one gaze shared between dancers.

Though Kirby is a traditional proscenium theater, Sun made some changes to the space (set design by Sun and Jeff Bird). The typically black stage was painted a light gray, and matching gray hand railings were added to the two usually understated staircases leading from the house to the stage. Most notably, the first five rows of seats were not open to audience members to make room for a raised platform in the aisle between two of the empty rows. These seats were replaced by a row of chairs up against the back of the stage. Along either side of the stage were matching rows of the black plastic chairs, that were deceivingly part of the work’s set and props, not available for the audience to use. I sat in one of the available chairs, instead of the traditional “front-facing” option, though I rarely felt as if I chose the unusual spot. The brilliance of Sun’s choreography necessitates this multi-angle view and it gently references the surrounded from all sides experience of being amidst a crowd.

The piece, running 43 minutes, is a collage of several distinct sections danced by Sun, Ayo Eniola ’24, Lilly Clark ’26, May Saito (UMass ’25), and Snigdha Ranjan ’25. Despite some harsh transitions that left me still wanting more from the previous section, Sun’s choreographic impulses are magnificent.

Eniola and Ranjan open with a captivating duet on the platform stationed in the audience. The pair set expectations high for the rest of the piece, particularly with their gaze. Though their eyes never met, their bodies and breath communicated their awareness of each other in a series of reaching motions.

Eniola and Ranjan, along with the rest of the cast, displayed a stoically glazed-over expression. I typically find this to be an empty gesture in contemporary dance — a “too cool for school postmodern” look, as I’ve heard Amherst and Smith College Lecturer in Dance Ellie Goudie-Averill put it. But in “Drift” it worked meaningfully, as an embodiment of the cold and solitary avoidance of NYC subway passengers.

Following Eniola and Ranjan’s prologue-esque duet, the piece descends into madness with Clark, Eniola, Saito, and Rajan dancing together on the stage with different and rapid, repetitive choreography, and a score to match (music by Sun, Omeed Goodarzi, Domenico Scarlatti, Mikhail Pletnev). Each dancer continuously pauses and restarts their movement in what appears to be a replication of the repetition of daily routine. In one moment, I looked directly ahead to find Saito paused not just completely still, but on relevé (raised on her toes). She holds the position for what felt to be at least a full minute, a demonstration of her extensive ballet background. Her position is perhaps imperceptible, but once noticed, is difficult to stop thinking about.

The dancers continued to take full advantage of the empty rows in the audience as they frequently passed back and forth across the rows. In one standout section, the dancers performed movement sitting in the plush red seats. With arms spread over the seat backs to both sides, they presented captivatingly synchronized choreography. The dancers were in the audience, looking at us, the audience. They sink down into the chairs, and for a moment, it is just us witnesses, watching one another, waiting for the bodies in motion to return.

While the music of “Drift” is merely a background for the movement, as it should be, Sun’s choreography produces its own soundscore. The scraping of chair legs across the stage, stamps and shuffles, gentle breaths and rapid pants, slaps to the chest and legs, and Sun’s live piano playing enhance the music emanating from Kirby’s speakers and immerse audience members in the aliveness of the performance. In a haunting solo from Eniola, they run rapidly around the stage several times, seemingly in search of their other cast members who are slowly walking through the audience. They gorgeously build the intensity of their movement and breath, coming to a point where their panting can be heard from anywhere in the theater. In more than one moment, Ranjan fills the space of Kirby with her expert expressions and forceful body percussion.

In the grand finale of “Drift,” Sun ditches the mood lighting (lighting design by Julian Brown ’23) and on a very bright stage, the five dancers don their personal cell phones and bluetooth headphones. With music blasting in their own ears and silence filling the space around them, they dance as though “no one’s watching” to their own beat. It is nothing short of disturbing, and frankly embarrassing; yet another exhibition of Sun’s brilliant approach to eliciting relevant emotion from the audience without mimicking her own inspiration so exactly.

This section of the work is singular in its revelation of fresh expressions from the dancers. Sun’s huge smile emerged from behind her bold red lipstick — a moment of freshness and relief in the context of the piece, as well as the context of her knowing she had almost made it to the end of the debut of her senior thesis.

“Drift” is heartbreaking at its core, and utterly beautiful on the surface. It is rife with meaning that is in your face just enough to keep you wondering. As the result of just one semester of rehearsals, five dancers, and a 22-year-old choreographer and designer, we can only imagine what more the world has yet to see from Sun.