Abby Z on the shifting meanings of survival

Emily Kilroy, Ohio State fifth-year, Dance and Arts Management, minor in Women’s Gender, Sexuality Studies

Oct 20, 2020

A group of nine dancers wearing yellow shorts and black crop tops in a circle on a low-lit stage, all squatting or in other positions that place them close to or on the floor. An audience can be seen around them past the edge of the stage

Choreographer Abby Zbikowski and her company, Abby Z and the New Utility, have returned to their roots here in Columbus and joined the incredible roster of artists presented in the Wexner Center for the Arts’ 2020–21 performing arts season. Though now based in New York City, the company has its origins in Columbus, where Zbikowski completed her MFA in Dance at Ohio State. 

On September 30, 2020, Zbikowski led a virtual watch party and public conversation for her recent movement work abandoned playground. I had the opportunity to interview Zbikowski in early October 2020, to discuss how she feels about sharing her work with the Wex this season, her approach to movement creation, and, finally, how her artistic practice has shifted as she and her company navigate the global pandemic.

Zbikowski and company were preparing to premiere RADIOACTIVE PRACTICE in March at New York Live Arts when the severity of the pandemic reached the United States. Having poured everything into the work—physically, emotionally, and monetarily—the company went into survival mode like so many other artists trying to create work during these times. The mindset Zbikowski has been forced by circumstance to adopt almost mimics the emotional tonality of her choreographic work. Putting physical exhaustion and rigor at the forefront, Zbikowski presents movement, and the shared experiences of heterogenous movement histories, as means to survive life’s situations and unexpected hardships. To Zbikowski, her capacity to survive hardships through various encounters with movement exists instinctually. She describes this instinct as a feeling of just “needing to do something.” Given that her dances brandish almost apocalyptic titles, I asked Zbikowski if her definition of surviving has shifted given the seemingly apocalyptic world we are living in now.

“Right now, thinking about survival has become more heady because it is a balancing act,” she replied. “This isn't fun to think about, but it's a balancing act of, how am I going to have enough money to try and keep this work alive? For it to come back around? Because we went into quarantine as we were going into tech and if you know anything about dance you really kind of blow your budget leading into that performance. And then then we ground to a halt. And so, for me now, it's something that is less intuitive.”

"Right now, thinking about survival has become more heady because it is a balancing act. This isn't fun to think about, but it's a balancing act of, how am I going to have enough money to try and keep this work alive? For it to come back around?"

For her, just being able to move in a space with her dancers is something that cannot happen as naturally or as intuitively; rather, it is a connection she must actively keep alive. There are so many more factors living at the forefront now––money, health, etc. However, despite living in a world that has physically driven us apart (six feet to be exact), Zbikowski understands the importance of simply trying to remain together. “I know that I want to keep the survival of, like, just keeping a group together and keeping a connection,” Zbikowski says.

With physical practice for dancers currently existing in the loneliness of two-dimensional video calls, the rigorous physicality involved in performing works such as Zbikowski’s serves as a needed release for both her dancers and her audiences. The physicality provides a release of the “emotional labor,” as Zbikowski puts it, of trying to remain connected as embodied beings now confined to moving in small bedrooms, living rooms, and other makeshift practice spaces. Zbikowski looks at the company’s future of upcoming performance experiences as a blessing to push herself and “release all those tensions.”

The Wex looks forward to presenting work from Abby Z and the New Utility later this season and to experiencing that collective release of full physical embodiment of movement histories, both shared and unfamiliar.



This selection is part of Writing about the Performing Arts at Ohio State, an interdisciplinary student-led seminar during the 2020-21 academic year. With guidance from Department of Dance Professor Karen Eliot and the Wexner Center’s Alana Ryder (Manager, Public and University Programs) and Lane Czaplinski (Director of Performing Arts), students with backgrounds in dance, economics, math, microbiology, political science, psychology, statistics, and beyond will serve as ambassadors and advocates for the arts. As a cohort, they will approach broad theoretical and philosophical issues behind contemporary performance as well as questions about the roles of arts critics and of arts criticism, especially in the era of COVID-19 and racial equity and social justice movements. For more information about the seminar, email


Top of page: Abby Z and the New Utility; image courtesy of the artist

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