When I imagined reflecting on Jacksonville Dance Theatre’s 9th Annual concert, I couldn’t imagine the rush of emotion I’d feel when “Katie ‘Fully Vaccinated’ McCaughan” (her words) took the stage to introduce the evening. Executive Director of the company, McCaughan promised a night of “return, remembrance, reunion, and bit of rebellion.” Seeing her back on stage felt like bearing witness to rites of return. 

Jacksonville Dance Theatre was founded by three dancers who wanted to practice their craft together. In 2012, Rebecca R. Levy, Katie McCaughan and Tiffany S. Santeiro pooled their talent to form a professional  contemporary dance company. JDT’s core values are professionalism, inclusivity, and innovation. With these ideas centering the troupe’s practice, JDT hosts visiting artists, commissions new works and encourages (and pays) their own dancers. 

This year’s annual concert consisted of five pieces: two new and three existing. “Disorder,” directed and choreographed by Rebecca R. Levy, opened the show. This was the premiere of the piece and afterward it was hard to think singularly about subsequent works. “Disorder” was researched and made in 2020 and at one point Levy, in her best voice-of-God intoned over the dancers: “Anxiety is not interesting, it’s incredibly boring.” 

She’s right. For over a year many of us have lost time fighting creeping unnamables and being paralyzed by the dullest of terrors, our only punctuation the searing indignity of mask squabbles at the grocery store. Watching nine dancers move across the stage felt simultaneously like a way of being seen and a kind of letting go: like sympathy and celebration. 

In the fourth movement of “Disorder” (2021) the dancers code strong bodies and resilient hearts with nods to drag clapbacks via snapping and popping hand-fans. It’s a funny moment in the midst of a piece that seems to balance on a gossamer line between self awareness and self indulgence. The dancers, even as they move through the space(s) of mental unwellness as mirrored in the body, do not resort to the equivalent of stagey-hand-wringing. Instead, the audience is shown a series of gestures and movements that seem as designed to banish the grinding dullness of anxiety (and it’s cousin depression) as they do to embody it. 

The only skepticism-inducing moment was when the kids walked on stage. Children in contemporary art are generally a direct line to schmaltzy and creepy—they read instead as props not performers. But here, in a moment when “Disorder” became a group meditation, the kids are a reminder that Jacksonville is a community. The piece ended with a literal clap as one of the small performers popped a hand fan, as she giggled and waited for her mom to join her onstage.

After “Disorder” I found that I was watching the entire show through the lens of mental health. Over the course of the evening, there were other striking moments: in a performance of “I met the soul walking along the path” (2012), dancer and choreographer James Morrow seemed to embody a fight against invisible monsters—this was an attempt to move through life with dignity and purpose. Though there is a slapstick kind of grace in this ongoing fight. 

In “Kitchen Sink” (2009) a duet with Winter Bosanko and Joshua Yago Mora, choreographed by Levy, the performers inhabit the topic of a marriage in shambles. Undergirded by the love the two dancers clearly share, there’s a luxurious sadness suffuses the theater; bittersweetness. 

There was a moment in the piece “Three tasks for 5 minutes each, once a day, 25 days” (2016) also choreographed by Levy, when soloist Tiffany Santeiro’s body hit the floor like it was dropped from about six feet above the stage. It might have been the most satisfying moment of the night: hearing that sound like a side of beef hitting the floor. Somehow it was an aural counterpoint to the return to normalcy we’re all hoping is on the way. 

Thinking about the sounds of bodies on stage leads towards the observation that some of the dancers’ bodies have changed. Seeing a new softness paired with existing strength underscores our shared experience and our shared loss. Because these bodies, though different, are capable—they still communicate and move with precision. 

The final piece, “Great Stone” (2020) choreographed by Kristen Sholes Sullivan, initially begged a joke about Sisyphus.  However as the performance unfolded, the subdued nature of the costumes and gestures felt like the kind of elegy we need for last year: A group effort becomes a small group triumph. If it is one of the gifts of the arts to help us process and move through hard things, then Jacksonville Dance Theatre has helped put magic back into navigating this world.