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Beauty in Blackness

There was a celebratory spirit in the packed house on opening night for Shamel Pitts’ and Tribe’s New York Live Arts season. As people located their seats, energetic jazz riffs played over the sound system and projected white specks of light floated in a circular formation on the black stage floor simulating the cosmic phenomenon of a black hole. At long last, the final instalment of Pitts’ “Black Trilogy,” titled “Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon,” was having its pandemic-delayed New York premiere.

Performance

“Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon” by Shamel Pitts│Tribe

Place

New York Live Arts, New York, NY, April 21-23, 2022

Words

Karen Greenspan

Shamel Pitts, Marcella Lewis, Tushrik Fredericks in “Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon” by Shamel Pitts

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Shamel Pitts, formerly of the Batsheva Dance Company and equipped with the Gaga movement toolbox, returned to his hometown of Brooklyn, New York, in 2016 to strike out on his own as a choreographer and create his “Black Trilogy,” a series of live performance pieces in search of black identity, roots, and community. The series began with Pitts’ solo “Black Box: Little Black Book of Red” and moved on to a collaborative endeavor with Brazilian performing artist Mirelle Martins for “Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes.” This spurred the establishment in 2019 of Tribe, an international, multidisciplinary arts collective, with artistic direction by Pitts. The collective’s mission is to create original art projects infused with an Afrofuturist vision of the humanity and nobility manifest in blackness. Pitts, now with his Tribe of creatives, has conceived “Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon,” a journey to find healing and home.

Marcella Lewis, Tushrik Fredericks, Shamel Pitts in "Black Hole:Trilogy and Triathlon" by Pitts |Tribe. Photograph by The Adeboye Brothers

As the house lights went down, my attention was magnetized by the circular blob of dancing light specks rising from the floor in three-dimensional form. This bubbling primordial cauldron eventually “birthed” a golden being. Pitts, completely rubbed in gold make-up, slowly crawled upstage on his belly leaving the roiling mass behind. He was soon followed by two similarly gold-tinted black/brown bodies—dancers Tushrik Fredericks and Marcella Lewis. Together they embarked on a one-hour hypnotic journey of discovery through movement, touch, and ultimately—connection.

The three performers moved with creature-like qualities—sometimes crawling, stepping, or fingering with delicate sensitivity and grace. At other times they stumbled backward, wriggled, or twitched with stunned awkwardness like a young animal learning to walk. Regardless, their impassive faces continuously gazed outward or upward in a vision of innocence and open awareness.

Marcella Lewis in “Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon” at New York Live Arts. Photograph by The Adeboye Brothers

Animator and lighting designer Lucca Del Carlo used only his video projections to light the piece augmenting the sense of mystery on this journey into blackness. The dancers’ bodies appeared like incandescent filaments illuminating the darkness—eventually coming together in human, sculptural, and metaphorical relationships. Apparitions of haunting beauty, they reached out with limbs, fingers, torsos, and eyes to touch, sense, and discover their new environment. They eventually connected—touching, caressing, comforting, and supporting one another—to form evocative groupings that moved together as a tribe.

Unforgettable images suffuse the work. The motif of running presented earlier in this “Black Trilogy” makes a forceful comeback here—fast steps, pumping arms, bodies pitched forward, eyes open wide. What danger are they running from? What are they running toward?

The discarded black fabric that originally encased the performers in the “black hole,” was repurposed as a giant robe creating the illusion of the three bodies as one being with three heads. They strode about in this way until Marcella Lewis remained stationary in profile as Pitts and Fredericks moved away from their group formation extending the fabric behind Lewis like the long, majestic train of a gown. Del Carlo’s lighting then animated the folds of stretched cloth to dramatic effect.

Periods of intensity punctuate this mesmerizing journey—often provoked by the immersive soundscape of original music composed by Sivan Jacobvitz blended with other sound samples. The initial deep space sounds gave way to louder, oppressive noise that seemed to increase the force of gravity making it difficult for the dancers to stand upright. The harsh reverberations pushed their bodies backward and downward until, through an effort of mutual support, they managed to stand erect.

At other times, a shift in the video lighting instigates high drama—like when the black hole animation expands to engulf the entire stage, walls, and ceiling sending shock waves through the tribe of three. In this multidisciplinary work, all elements take on equal importance in creating the experience.

Shamel Pitts, Tushrik Fredericks, Marcella Lewisin “Black Hole: Trilogy and Triathlon” by Pitts | Tribe. Photograph by The Adeboye Brothers

Tribe had been performing the work internationally as the pandemic hit. During the period of lockdown, the collective used an artistic residency awarded by the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center to develop an interactive 3D animation project based on “Black Hole,” the dance. The result was the video art project BLACK HOLE 360°, which had its virtual premiere in February of 2021 and can be accessed at on Vimeo.

Pitts has explained that the title refers to a black hole—not to be understood as a cosmic void, but as a metaphorical place of transformation and potential. Indeed, “Black Hole” draws upon universal images and activities of deep memory and refracts them through a lens of awe-evoking technology to create a generative space—a place where the past, present, and future of what it is to be black is utterly reimagined.

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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