Holding two elastic cords with illuminating weights attached to each end, Carolyn Zhao ’16 stands in the lobby of Steinbach Theater, preparing her first attempt at “The Butterfly;” a poi move which entails spinning the two strings in the opposite direction of each other. Poi is a type of performance art that involves swinging tethered weights. In an interview with The Phillipian, Zhao described how when she made this attempt, one of the weights hit her in the face, making her braces cut into the inside of her lip.
Despite her initial mishap with “The Butterfly” during her lower year, Zhao went on to co-found Photon, a club dedicated to poi, last year with Cliff Ressel ’15. Poi is an art form in which the performer swings weights on strings in geometric patterns. Accompanied by Electronic Dance Music (EDM), Photon occasionally performs a branch of poi called “glowstringing,” where glow-sticks are tied to the end of the strings instead of weights.
“Poi [uses] heavier weights [and requires] more technical skill [than glowstringing]. Glowstringing is like more flashy stuff for the audience,” said Zhao. “We do glowstringing sometimes for performances like Grasshopper Night or Abbot Cabaret.”
Photon choreographs routines to music that they mix themselves. Zhao took charge of this creative process after Ressel graduated, but she has also opened it up to other club members.
“This year [choreography has] been more of a collaborative effort,” Zhao said. “There are a lot of moves in poi that are technically difficult, but look the same to the audience with light in the dark, so [choreography] is geared to what the audience sees…I do most of the choreography and [Andi Cheng ’17, a member of Photon] and [Jason Yung ’18, a member of Photon] pitch in… so it’s really a mix and match kind of thing.”
The club holds weekly practices on Fridays at 5:30 p.m. in the Steinbach lobby. Practices begin with a warm-up session consisting of freestyle poi, followed by basic instruction on poi moves. Next, the more advanced members practice together while the beginners continue to work on the basics. Despite the divide in practices, Photon members said they manage to maintain a relaxed environment and a tight-knit group.
“[If you want to join], honestly just show up to one of our club meetings. We’ve had a lot of people just go like, ‘Hey, that looks cool! Can I give it a go?’” said Zhao. “Absolute beginners are welcomed. That’s how I started. That’s how everyone can start.”
This year, Photon will be performing for the second time in Grasshopper Night. Photon had trouble choreographing and mixing under Grasshopper’s 1960’s theme, until they settled on the theme of the moon landing.
“Poi and glowstring is usually done to EDM so we were like, 1960s EDM? That was a bit of a struggle. But we finally came up with the theme of moonlanding,” said Zhao. “I spent about eight to nine hours doing our mix for Grasshopper. We went and found a lot of space-themed music to go along with [the theme] and just managed to get it together in time for the audition.”