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‘Dark Adaptation’: Dancing Among The Stars

by George Hatza, Freelance Arts Writer

‘Dark Adaptation’: Dancing Among The Stars

When dancer/choreographer Jessica C. Warchal-King talks about creating her latest work, the conversation is not about pirouettes or high kicks. Rather, it is all about concept.

Describing the choreography for her new effort, accompanying a mesmerizing music work entitled “Dark Adaptation,” she could just as easily have been lecturing an astronomy course. The upcoming public presentation of this piece, at 4 p.m. on April 23 in Alvernia University’s Francis Hall Theatre, is a serendipitous collaboration with musician/composer Stephen J. Grieco, who heads the music department at Cabrini University in Radnor, Delaware County, and who composed “Dark Adaptation.”

“The relationships between celestial bodies reflect those that emerge between human beings,” said Warchal-King, who resides in Exeter Township. “We are so impacted by the things around us. Nothing is isolated. We and the universe are both communities. The one here on Earth is a beautiful microcosm of the macrocosm.”

The founder and artistic director of JCWK Dance Lab, Warchal-King – who holds a bachelor’s degree in dance and anthropology from Muhlenberg College and a master-of-fine-arts degree in dance performance and choreography from Temple University – discovered Grieco purely by chance on the social media platform LinkedIn.

“Stephen had just published the album for his composition, ‘Dark Adaptation,’ in 2021, and he posted about it,” she said. “It showed up on my computer. After learning about it, I immediately introduced myself. It turns out a colleague of his was a friend of mine from a Philly dance company.”

However, there’s more to the story.

Grieco’s piece was inspired by his interest in science, particularly astronomy. The ideas it explores connected perfectly with the kind of work that Warchal-King had begun to contemplate. What united their worlds was the energizing power of S.T.E.A.M.: science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics. Add to the project the visual artwork by Marie Grieco, Stephen’s mother, and a unique performance piece began to take shape.

After purchasing the “Dark Adaptation” album with its explanatory booklet that contains Grieco’s scientific research and displays his mother’s cosmic imagery, Warchal-King was more convinced than ever that she had something to offer him artistically.

For Grieco, the idea of adding dance to “Dark Adaptation” was, according to the Doylestown resident, “Perfect.”

“Being able to have that added component enhanced the composition’s artistry, helping to balance its scientific origins,” he said.

Grieco grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. When he thinks of his youth there, he remembers its “dark skies.” Thus, the leap to “Dark Adaptation” doesn’t seem too far.

“I received my first telescope when I was fairly young,” Grieco recalled. “I was fascinated by the moon and looking at the stars. My dad taught biology and the sciences, so it was a vocabulary with which I quickly grew familiar. I loved science and astronomy. I loved spending time in planetariums.”

When he grew older, he found himself drawn to music. He studied composing. Indeed, he holds a bachelor-of-music degree in composition from the State University of New York at Fredonia, a master of music in composition from Bowling Green State University, and a doctorate in music composition from Arizona State University.

The music, he revealed, that may be the inspiration for “Dark Adaptation” is British composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets,” which had its world premiere in September 1918. Although more influenced by astrology than astronomy – the work is divided into seven movements for each of the then-known planets, except for Earth – it proved to be a commanding influence on Grieco.

“Listening to it (“The Planets”) the first time floored me,” he confided. “But when I set out to work on ‘Dark Adaptation,’ I wanted it to be larger. I wanted it to reflect science and to go beyond the planets to asteroids, pulsars and black holes. I needed to do astronomical research, so I contacted a colleague of mine, Richard J. Thompson Jr., an astronomer and astrophysicist.”

Thompson shared facts about the movement of heavenly bodies, and that helped Grieco understand the rhythm and style of his composition. That research also influenced Warchal-King’s choreography: How do celestial bodies move past one another? Can human bodies suggest that kind of push and pull?

Grieco learned about neutrinos, neutral subatomic particles that result from nuclear fusion within the sun and other stars.

“How do you represent those musically?” Grieco pondered. It resulted in a composition overtly rhythmic and syncopated, adding a chaotic element to the work that reflects authentic science.

“As an educator, I wanted to get people excited about science and music,” he said.

“Dark Adaptation” features 10 movements, running a total of 60 minutes. The work also includes an 11th bonus track on the album. Marie Grieco’s projections move in the background, although not enough to distract from the dancers. It’s the first time Grieco joined forces artistically with his mother, who resides in western New York state and who has been making art in various media for more than four decades.

“She was very excited about this when I approached her,” he said. “She just took off. I described what I was looking for. I gave her real photos from NASA and other scientific renderings and asked her to give me her artistic point of view on them, all the while staying true to the science.”

“Dark Adaptation” has been performed as a concert as well as virtually. The Alvernia presentation will be the first time the dancers will be part of the experience. In fact, Grieco will not see the final product until the night before the local premiere during its final rehearsal.

Warchal-King, who has been working with three other dancers on this partnership – Cady Monasmith, Arielle Ridley and Richard Maldonado, Jr. – said the company has been developing the choreography since June 2022. Her process, including her own performance preparation, involved immersing herself in Grieco’s music, studying his research, doing her own scientific research, and getting feedback from the dancers.

She also found that taking a hard look at Marie Grieco’s visual art had a profound effect on her own imagination.

“After all,” she said, “that becomes the palette for each particular movement. There are so many choices in creating dance. It’s so much fun distilling them down to something specific. It’s about relationships and time. Ultimately, you end with something very human, if nonverbal.

“What Stephen has done with this piece is to put all of it – science and mythology – together. I think this project has a lot of depth. And I want to share that.”

The dancers will work on a thrust stage at Alvernia, which is an unusual performance space for a choreographed piece. And this expanding company is under discussion to tour it to various sites, such as planetariums and astronomical societies across the state and perhaps beyond. What Grieco has learned from earlier performances is that “Dark Adaptation” seems to be doing well with audiences.

“I want people to get engaged about science and the arts,” he said boldly, unable to conceal the obvious passion he feels about the composition’s mission and deeper meaning. “It’s a challenge to get people to listen to music, especially new music. They tend to think of it as non-melodic. However, my style is more melodic. My grandmother would enjoy this. And my theory friends would still enjoy it. We’re trying to meld the two.”

Warchal-King added: “At the end of the day, we just want to create something really beautiful.”

For more information on “Dark Adaptation,” including how to purchase tickets, visit Francis Hall Theatre is at 400 Saint Bernardine Street, Reading, on the main campus of Alvernia University.

George Hatza is the former Entertainment Editor of the Reading Eagle. He is retired and living in Exeter Township.