Back to top

State of the Arts

Photos by


A poet, blindfolded and tied to a chair, holds a notebook in his lap. Dancers wear costumes of white, light blue, black, gold, and charcoal: suspenders on the peasants, a tie for the Boss Man. Farmers move grass plantings from plot to plot of earth. Groups congeal and disperse. Although there is no dialogue—only lines of poetry spoken, recorded, or shouted—this dance performance unfurls like a theater piece, creating an entire world on one vast white square. 

Cadáver Exquisito, produced by the UMass Amherst Department of Music and Dance, directed by faculty members Thomas Vacanti and Leslie Frye Maietta, and featuring 35 student dancers, played to packed houses in Totman Performance Lab at the end of the fall semester. 

The project’s title derives from a collaborative composition method favored by the surrealist movement. Until the week before the performance, Vacanti and Frye Maietta created their own episodes only vaguely aware of what the other was doing—yet in the end, both visions coalesced into a coherent, absorbing whole. 

To explore the fiery flowering of art and creativity against a container of political repression, the directors invoked the works of Spanish-language poets Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda. Vacanti, haunted by Lorca’s assassination at the hands of Francisco Franco’s far-right nationalist regime, evoked collective human activity—for instance, how easily clapping can turn into applause.

Frye Maietta, inspired by Neruda, concentrated on the individual human relationships that take place within a larger political context: lives lived out against the backdrop of a country’s political drama. “There can be this upheaval and turmoil, but at the end of the day,” she points out, “most of us still desire to come home to someone.”

The directors layered sound projected from six different sources to create an environment for the dancers. They pulled rhythmic undertones and sound influences from the collective consciousness of Spain and Chile: radio broadcasts of Franco speeches, marches, arias, guitar music, bird calls from South American forests, and poetry read aloud. 

Ambitious projects such as Cadáver that use dance as a means of inquiry mark a new stage of evolution for the dance program. “We want to ask, ‘How can dance be taken seriously as research?’” says Vacanti. “We want to support dancers to go into 21st-century dance careers that require an entrepreneurial drive,” continues Frye Maietta. “That way, they have a great set of skills with which to leave here and conquer.” 

Lighting design by Brenda Cortina, associate director of operations, Fine Arts Center. Costumes by MFA student Emma Hollows. 


Scenes of poetic relationship from Cadáver Exquisito.