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Change of Season

At the end of the busy spring dance season, just a few days before the summer solstice, two incubators for emerging choreographers—“Planting Connections: Curated by Kyle Abraham” at Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza as part of Summer for the City and “Fresh Tracks: New Works” at New York Live Arts—boasted mixed bills that were as provocative as they were entertaining. These artists are not unknown, and many have been shining in New York City’s experimental dance scene for years. Perhaps any sense of emergence came from the tension, intimacy, surprise, and pleasure their work brought to the sites and stages of these larger presenting organizations. I can’t say I came into these performances burned out or bored with dance, but I am positive I walked away refreshed and replete with reminders of why it is worth spending an evening sitting in the dark (or in the case of “Planting Connections,” waiting in the elements).

Performance

“Planting Connections” & “Fresh Tracks”

Place

Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza & New York Live Arts, New York, NY, June 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

“Planting Connections,” a festival curated by Kyle Abrahams. Photograph by Tony Turner

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For “Planting Connections,” an evening of outdoor music and dance, established choreographer Kyle Abraham played matchmaker, pairing four choreographers with four composers. The first two dances, choreographed by Vinson Fraley and Marla Phelan to the recorded music of composers Li Yilei and Shelley Washington respectively, made use of Hearst Plaza’s shallow pool, home to Henry Moore’s iconic Reclining Figure sculpture. 

Floating on his back, Fraley glides out from under the sculpture to the sound of softly reverberating voices. Whether crawling, rolling, or bending back in sublime arcs, his movements gather their own gravity, drawing us in. He inches to some set props—a chair whose seat hovers above the water and a long bamboo stick—and his body becomes even more receptive to the environment. Perched on the seat, he sprawls out on his back, legs spread wide, and flips over to coast on his belly, emulating the flight of a bird. As the score becomes more industrial, Fraley’s body snaps and breaks in a twitchy interlude. Unfortunately, the threat of a thunderstorm caused the performance to be paused before we could see what he had planned with the bamboo stick. Fraley is a compelling triple threat artist who can do most anything—recently his stunning physicality and striking voice brought poignancy to Bobbi Jene Smith’s ‘Broken Theater.’ In that larger context, this solo stood out for its quiet restraint and elemental focus. 

 

While Fraley floated in an almost meditative state, the six dancers in Phelan’s work appeared in the throes of a collective fever dream when the show resumed. They alternate between splashing the surface of the pool and thrashing at the air, as if in battle with an invisible foe, with tender moments of connection and care for one another. The ambient music verges on the mystical, lending their undulating patterns the feeling of ancient ritual. Some of the strongest moments came near the end as the dancers walked over each other’s backs and threaded themselves in and out of a convulsing flesh sculpture.

“Planting Connections” at Hearst Plaza in Lincoln Center. Photograph by Tony Turner

On the other side of the plaza, the works of Jordan Demetrius Lloyd and Kayla Farrish played in the grove of trees with the bonus of live music. The five dancers in Lloyd’s work weave a tapestry among the trees with simple, directional moves. They rush forward and recede, get caught in moments of stillness, link up with one another and fall away to the incredibly dynamic sounds of Anthony R. Green’s score. Musician Christie Echols’s covers a large vocal range, holding long notes and scat singing in more percussive ways, while plucking and pounding at the upright bass. The clean shapes and cool edges of their dancing, sprinkled with crisp, jazzy bits of footwork, often contrasted with the free-form feeling of Echols’s performance, making the dialogue between the two feel more like parallel play.

Conversely, the duet between Kayla Farrish and composer and soul singer Crystal Monee Hall was in lock step from the first lamenting notes and full-bodied movements to the final image of the pair facing each other, arms open wide. Farrish is a performer who can drop right into character, changing her motivating storyline or shifting her mood with the tilt of a head or the flick of a wrist, kicking at the sand like an insolent child or swaying in a nostalgic slow dance for one, and it appears Hall also has this extreme shapeshifting ability. Their relationship charts an epic emotional journey that plays out in a kind of call and response format. It is not always clear who is leading, or whether they are improvising. But as their energy transfer gains steam to full-blown joy, with Farrish clapping and stomping in accompaniment to Hall’s swelling song, it does not matter. One can only hope Abraham’s experiment built some lasting artistic partnerships and that we will see more from this pairing.

Miguel Alejandro Castillo’s “loud and clear.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Further downtown, on the same evenings, the 58th cohort of Fresh Tracks showed new work made during their season in residence at New York Live Arts. (The program was created in 1965 in when Live Arts was Dance Theater Workshop.)  While the relationship between music and moves ruled over the site-specific creations of “Planting Connections,” the artists of Fresh Tracks leaned more heavily into performance art, making use of text, spoken word, and the capabilities of Live Arts’ black box theater. The layering of language onto divergent practices made themes of reckoning and protest, healing and joy, all the more explicit. Some of these were works in process, others were iterations or pieces of something larger. The result was a glorious polyglot of live art, an amalgam of pain and perseverance complicated with hope and humor.

Miguel Alejandro Castillo’s “loud and clear,” with multidisciplinary artist and self-taught multi-instrumentalist Daniela Barbarito and costumes by visual artist Lexy Ho-Tai, celebrated the Venezuelan diaspora. Moving fluidly from the personal to the universal, between facts and folklore, Castillo tells a sliver of his own story—in the buff, enthusiastically humping the floor and claiming his “illegal” status—while speaking to the volume of horrors and indignity of the immigrant experience. Projecting facts about himself and the Venezuelan exodus, the sentences pile up and become unreadable, just one of several effective accumulations the work employs. The traditional-sounding ballads, sung with gusto in Spanish and mixed live with distortion, vibrate in a new dream of pastpresentfuture time, and the low, stamping footwork, performed in skirt made of detritus, swirl in a performative palimpsest.

Orlando Hernández’s “Too soon to discover planets, too late to discover islands.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Likewise, Orlando Hernández’s “Too soon to discover planets, too late to discover islands” leans into a new myth making. This tap-based work follows two people arriving in a new land, only to be crushed against some rocks in a storm. The two mortals are accompanied by three others who appear as gods or spirits and two musicians playing saxophone and upright bass. In tap shoes and colorful masks, the dancers also sing, lending the delivery of this short, gruesome plot a dark humor and at times, a tenderness. A small wooden box functions first as a boat, and later as precarious instrument, and the ensemble works as a team to traverse the floor in it, helping one another through percussive sequences. Following in the footsteps of the myth as form, there were lessons rather than happy endings, yet the rhythms and inventive play within this work avoided the didactic and felt fresh and alive.  

On the other hand, Kristel Baldoz’s “Yellow Fever” could be viewed as a still life reckoning with stereotypes of Asian femininity. Surrounded by ceramic objects of her own making and crumpled bits of plastic sheeting, Baldoz moves her arms in slow motion to a version of the popular song “Oye Como Va.” She wraps her hair into a knot and dons a a ceramic wig shaped in the form of a blunt cut bob reminiscent of artist Yayoi Kusama. Wrapping the plastic around her and refashioning it into a gown, she eventually hides underneath it with a microphone. In a monologue spoken from the point of view of an object, perhaps one of the box-like sculptures on the stage, she tells silly anecdotes that all add up to the same punchline: not being seen. When she throws one of the sculptures to the ground in catharsis, the object shatters, making a loud noise and a mess that cannot be ignored.

Jade Charon’s “Gold Pylon.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Jade Charon’s “Gold Pylon” and Malcolm-x Betts’s “Niggas at Sundown” offered radically different types of testimony. Charon is also a filmmaker and video art of her dancing in flames while on water set up a spiritual space for her conversion story. With the admonition “whether you believe it or not, you are a witness,” she links stories from different stages of her life where she experienced an ominous look from “Michael”—a white male version of a “Karen,” whose gaze is a precursor to violence—with bits of family history, including a recording of her grandmother’s testimony in church, and research from time spent in Egypt, where she learned more about the gold pylons framing temples. Acting as congregant, temple dancer, and healer, she seeks and finds both God and gold and in an experimental bit, offers her alms to a willing participant in the audience.

While Charon’s solo was inspired by the kind of testimony offered in church, Betts and his collaborators Nile Harris, Andy Kobilka, and Arien Wilkerson, blurred the lines between stand-up comedy and polemic. As irreverent and sacrilegious and blasphemous to the institutions of dance as it is possible to be, Betts and Wilkerson stumble and climb through the audience dressed in a wrestling singlet and underwear, introducing themselves by way of roasting the powers that be—including those who programmed them and were in the audience, like Live Arts’ own Bill T. Jones and Janet Wong, other presenters in attendance like Nicky Paraiso of LaMaMa Experimental Theater, and those who are all too often the programmed, naming names like Abraham and Faye Driscoll. Throughout, Betts mostly played the striving choreographer to Wilkerson’s artist-on-the-verge, repeating a whining desire to be taken seriously in-between Wilkerson’s red-hot rebukes of dance’s hierarchies and demands to be paid. In one hilarious bit, Betts acknowledges being upstaged by his collaborator but insists this must just mean he is a good choreographer. (And indeed, being brave enough to make room for the virtuosic Wilkerson to do their thing—in essence, torch the place—might qualify as a stroke of genius.)  

As they make it to the stage, the long list of traumas, professional slights, grants nearly received, taunts (“This is for you, Bill,” followed by a perfectly executed pirouette), and retorts (“Take me to Chick Fil-A, Bill” or the more concise “Suck my @#$!”) escalates. Catching each other’s bodies in partnering that devolves into various forms of grappling, interrupted with the occasional coupé jeté and pas de bouree, Betts offers weak apologies in a futile effort to counter Wilkerson’s unrelenting rant. An intermittent screeching from the colliding of microphones layers an uncomfortable and discordant note on top of Kobilka’s more ambient sound design. Harris was absent from the cast at the performance I saw; that the show didn’t seem to be missing an element was another testament to the chemistry between Betts and Wilkerson.

While critiquing the various -isms and abuses of power in the dance and larger arts industry has become more common, it is often done in safe spaces, outside of the larger institutions, among like-minded peers. But it takes courage to bring the takedown of an institution to its own audiences and directors and donors, and to continue to bring that outsider perspective, and a raucous one at that, even after you have been let in. Haven’t we all been taught not to bite that hand? It is exciting to think about where we can go from here, if we can begin to unlearn the sycophantic habits that abide the things we claim to want to change.

Malcolm-x Betts’s “Niggas at Sundown.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

As they make it to the stage, the long list of traumas, professional slights, grants nearly received, taunts (“This is for you, Bill,” followed by a perfectly executed pirouette), and retorts (“Take me to Chick Fil-A, Bill” or the more concise “Suck my @#$!”) escalates. Catching each other’s bodies in partnering that devolves into various forms of grappling, interrupted with the occasional coupé jeté and pas de bouree, Betts offers weak apologies in a futile effort to counter Wilkerson’s unrelenting rant. An intermittent screeching from the colliding of microphones layers an uncomfortable and discordant note on top of Kobilka’s more ambient sound design. Harris was absent from the cast at the performance I saw; that the show didn’t seem to be missing an element was another testament to the chemistry between Betts and Wilkerson.

While critiquing the various -isms and abuses of power in the dance and larger arts industry has become more common, it is often done in safe spaces, outside of the larger institutions, among like-minded peers. But it takes courage to bring the takedown of an institution to its own audiences and directors and donors, and to continue to bring that outsider perspective, and a raucous one at that, even after you have been let in. Haven’t we all been taught not to bite that hand? It is exciting to think about where we can go from here, if we can begin to unlearn the sycophantic habits that abide the things we claim to want to change.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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