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In the Ring

There are moments during boxing matches when the two combatants lean into each other, their bodies interlocking in an embrace. They linger there until the referee intercedes, pulling them apart. At those moments you realize that they are as close to each other as two humans can possibly be, vulnerable, exhausted, in pain, set apart from the audience by their herculean strength and effort. At that moment, nothing else really exists for them outside of that embrace. The audience is irrelevant.

Performance

Shamel Pitts | TRIBE in “Touch of RED”

Place

New York Live Arts, New York, NY, April 28, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Shamel Pitts

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I thought of that the other night as I watched the dancers Shamel Pitts and Tushrik Fredericks in “Touch of RED” at New York Live Arts. These two extraordinary dancers, set apart from the rest of us by their stamina, virtuosity, and grace, seemed to exist only for each other as their bodies bounced and stretched, twisted and lunged, pulled each other close or locked in an embrace.

“Touch of RED” is performed in a square of light, surrounded by low red walls, under a hood of the same color. This space of light is sometimes flooded with projections that look like calligraphy, or waves, or flames. The stage design is by Mimi Lien, the projections by Lucca Del Carlo. The costumes, a version of athletic garb, are by Dion Lee. Mostly, Pitts and Fredericks face each other. The audience is seated around the perimeter of the “ring,” beyond their frame of vision. The music, by Sivan Jacobovitz, is loud and electronic, and consists mainly of pulsing rhythms. It clears the mind, augmenting the work’s hypnotizing effect.

Shamel Pitts | Tribe in “A Touch of RED.” Photograph by Jeremy Lawson

The two men are in near constant motion, their bodies twisting around each other as their feet, clad in black sneakers, move with speed and lightness. The reference point is the rapid and skillful footwork displayed by boxers in the ring, but here the beats are multiplied tenfold. Gradually the imagery shifts, from boxing to dancing at a club, to an evocation of the special effects in martial arts movies or The Matrix. Arms and legs slice through the negative space between shoulder and head, elbow and ribcage, never making contact, as if the two dancers were Zen masters capable of catching bullets mid-flight.

And then the energy shifts once more. Now they are Lindy-Hop dancers, assisting each other in aereal feats—this section draws on the expertise of LaTasha Barnes—and now, instead, they are cats crawling across the savannah, shoulders rising and falling with the clear articulation of muscle and bone as they wend their leisurely way across the floor.

The reference points in “Touch of RED” keep shifting—wrestling, playground games, Fred and Ginger—as does the mood, from playful to sexual to trance-like. There is a constant sense of communication between the two men, but also of risk, as if at any moment something could go wrong. What exactly? An injury perhaps, or the possibility one of them might collapse from sheer exhaustion. Meanwhile, the world outside of the ring dissolves. As a member of the audience, you almost forget your own corporeal presence.

After the show, Pitts and Fredericks whisper secrets to the audience, once again visible, one small group at a time. They reveal that one of the inspirations for the duet is the feeling of ecstasy they feel when dancing together at a club. In such moments, they say, they experience a sense of transcendence—“nothing exists beyond our connection.” It’s the same feeling we get while watching them move together; these two beings are somewhere beyond, and inextricably entwined.

Shamel Pitts | Tribe in “A Touch of RED.” Photograph by Jeremy Lawson

But as the hour-long dance progresses, you also take stock of how different the two men are. Pitts’ movement has a silken smoothness, perhaps related to his years of training in Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique, which draws on awareness of sensations inside the body to allow for extraordinary suppleness and extension of range. Fredericks, who started out as a Krump dancer in his native South Africa, has a jagged, nervous, almost hyperactive movement quality that crackles with electricity and tension. One is quiet and internal, the other exuberant and almost gleeful. Both display an extraordinary virtuosity.

It is virtuosity without showiness, however. Together, the two dancers achieve a kind of transcendence through movement. Total involvement in the moment, leading to total depletion of energetic resources. Boxing matches can have that same quality of pure presence, though it is seldom sustained for minutes on end, and its purpose is the annihilation of the other. It’s a key difference, and therein lies the subtext of the piece. It’s a dazzling show.

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

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