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Music as Muse

Music was muse, medium, and the message during Kyle Marshall Choreography’s recent engagement at the Joyce Theater. Presenting three new works from 2023, all choreographed by Marshall, the company gave a sensitive and highly attuned performance, showing their ability to both create and embody sound.

Performance

Kyle Marshall

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, November 8, 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

“Ruin” by Kyle Marshall Choreography. Photograph by Steven Pisano

In a sort of prologue to “Ruin,” sound collaborator Cal Fish walks around the stage tuning the dynamic listening devices embedded in ropes and other props that look like pails, before setting themself up in a station at the foot of the stage. A cast of five dancers enter and strike a pose in ragged-edged tunics, painted in earth tones. A static rain sound from Fish sets a tone for the performing artists to play over. Their movements become amplified loops of sound, raw material for Fish to mix. This give and take manifests a generosity and sensitivity that makes you want to lean in closer. 

Marshall often starts his dances from task-based or evocative choreographic scores. While watching “Ruin,” I found myself wondering what such a score might read like. The meandering work favors the imagistic over narrative. In a sequence that bookends “Ruin,” Marshall wields his device—a chalice-type cup—like a priest, drinking from it before blessing another dancer. Time functions as a malleable tool, both rhythmically but also in terms of movement vocabulary and setting. Flattened, profile positions evoke a sense of cave painting and blend casually into sequences of stomping, clapping, and slapping, reminiscent of a traveling drum line dance. Costume and makeup design by creative director Edo Tastic creates a future hieroglyphic feel, with dramatic streaks of red color emphasizing the eye and line of cheekbones.  

With the body as a percussion instrument, the group comes together like a band, blending formations and time signatures with ease. Marshall’s loose-limbed style, no doubt refined over his years as a dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, lends itself well to pulling sound out of the air. Bodies bent forward, their arms whoosh in circular motions behind the back to a strong stop in front of the knees. Hips and elbows gyrate; hands tap a steady beat like a metronome. But even as they build towards bigger leaps and turns, they never fully let loose. 

Bree Breeden in “Alice” by Kyle Marshall Choreography. Photograph by Steven Pisano

A similar restraint hovers over “Alice.” The solo features recordings of three Alice Coltrane songs, the first of which “The Sun” (1968) begins with an anti-war incantation: “May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation, O God.” Her spiritual jazz sets the tone for a dance dedicated to “all who are on the verge of transformation.” Dressed in a loose-fitting golden outfit, their head wrapped in a mango-colored scarf, Bree Breeden melts to the ground at the first quickly cascading notes of piano. Spinning on a hip, they look about them, the feeling moody and effervescent. Coming up to stand, their arms spread taut, holding an imaginary bow and arrow before releasing into shoulder shimmies. 

There are waves of questioning gestures, palms tossed to the sky, but Breeden avoids the melodrama that can sometimes accompany such agitation and lamentation. Even when they later try to grasp something hovering out of reach in the air above them, there is a sense of equanimity in Breeden’s self-possession. A supple quality reigns, even as their movement takes on greater punctuation. Jumps land with a soft touch, pirouettes occur without any sense of beginning or ending. I think at one point that I hear the harp, and later I learn that Coltrane was one of few jazz harpists. The rippling, trancelike sound is well-matched for Breeden’s enigmatic presence. I don’t know if they ever find what they are after and I never figure out what the square of foil set in the wall upstage means, but a promise of discovery hangs in the air as the stage lights go down.

Cayleen Del Rosario, Bree Breeden, Nik Owens, Kyle Marshall in “Onyx.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

In the final work of the program, “Onyx,” a small ensemble returns to embody the origins of rock ’n’ roll. Sound designer Kwami Winfield cuts and mixes the music of pioneers like Little Richard, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Sonny Sharrock to forge a soundtrack for the most narrative work of the evening. In Tastic’s glamorous and shimmering costumes, the dancers pop their heels to a slow funky groove. Swagger abounds. 

Marshall shows how steps are passed along as he and Nik Owens share moves and another couple rock through a version of the Lindy Hop. There are clips of voice over from older musicians talking about what has gone unacknowledged (“what The Beatles got from me”). Owens takes on a character of one of these unsung, underpaid musicians, divesting himself of finery as he undresses onstage. 

Marshall’s message couldn’t be clearer and it is evident he has done his homework: the origins of rock ’n’ roll are Black. In a solo addressing the appropriation of Elvis Presley, Marshall demonstrates the iconic rubbery leg dance to a repeating clip of “Hound Dog” sung by Big Mama Thornton. “You Ain’t Nothing” echoes as Marshall crosses the stage, hips and knees popping, finger pointing to all corners of the audience. 

There is an incredible subtlety to Marshall’s personal movement quality. Near invisible weight and energy shifts can be read easily on his tall frame; small hesitations yield an outsized sense of anticipation and lend a carefree, spontaneous quality. There is the cool awareness of being watched but without the self-conscious need to bend to that gaze. 

Following this solo, the dancers return to mosh to the proto-punk band Death; later Breeden dons a sparkly mini dress to transform into Tina Turner. Like the other two dances, this one, though much more raucous, ends rather quietly. As the group slowly pulses toward the wings with a ball change step, Breeden waves goodbye.

Notably, all three works eschewed any kind of formula or arc. Rather they riffed, free-styled, and doubled back, leaving an open invitation for the viewer to listen. 

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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