Thursday, February 25, 2016

Malcolm Low premieres "Speakeasy" at Gibney Dance

Mei Yamanaka (above)
Malcolm Low with Yamanaka (below)
 in Low's Speakeasy
(photo: Scott Shaw)

Malcolm Low’s new work draws upon his experience of growing up gay in a religious black family, imagining a utopian environment where the challenges of confronting race, homophobia, shame, and loss give way to clarity and candor.
--from promotion for Speakeasy, a world premiere by Malcolm Low
...you begin to discover that you are moving and you can’t stop this movement to what looks like the edge of the world. Now what is crucial, and one begins to understand it much, much later, is that if you were this hypothetical artist, if you were in fact the dreamer that everybody says you are, if in fact you were wrong not to settle for the things that you cannot for some mysterious reason settle for, if this were so, the testimony in the eyes of other people would not exist. The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not…
--from James Baldwin's The Artist's Struggle for Integrity

Malcolm Low (of Malcolm Low/Formal Structure) takes on the famously odd theater space at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center in his strange, sprawling Speakeasy.  Clocking in at less than an hour, the piece looks and sounds like one of those vivid, epic dreams splicing radically different environments and plot points that make you wake up and go, Whoa! What??

The dreaminess begins in the way Low shifts the audience's gaze from the conventional front and, for a long stretch, rigidly angles that gaze far to the right into the dimly-lit, mirror-lined area recessed beyond a stand of columns. Dancer Simone Sobers, dressed in glitter short-shorts, grooves to spooky atmosphere and click-clack beats DJ'ed by composer Ben Coleman on his laptop.  She's pumping hips, softly flinging arms to the repetitions. After a while, Low joins her in her private dancehall, throwing out similar moves, giving off a timeless feeling.

The words "nothing special" came to mind, but I don't mean it as an insult. Rather it felt like a familiar, common response to dance music, just ordinary people doing a most-basic social dance and not really caring that they were being watched--one of three ways of movement you'll find in Speakeasy. Likely, it tells one story about Low. And so does the second way of movement, developing a little later in the central part of the theater. This involves Low's spongey, rubbery response to space and other beings in space with notable lack of affectation or arrogance or aggression.

The third, exemplified in Mei Yamanaka and Erick Montes-Chavero's breathtaking duet, brought to mind another unexpected phrase--"anti-togetherness togetherness." I have no idea if these words fit the intent, or who these two people might be to each other. However, individually and as partners, they pack tons of surprise and dynamism. Here's the hotspot of the dream, the place you yearn to revisit, if you can, and mine for meaning.

A speakeasy is where you are when you're not supposed to be there. A place of self-indulgence and pleasure and risk. Do and say what you will while under threat of discovery. Low's establishment at Gibney creates space(s) for everything from voiceover porn narratives to Voice-of-God declarations from James Baldwin. (Baldwin. Now there's some "clarity and candor" for ya). Resounding with Coleman's bold textures, Low's speakeasy affords compartmentalized spaces and elements that don't stay compartmentalized; they collide, wash over, overlap even as you think, Is this supposed to be happening? His artist's head roils with imagery, characters, forbidden, inflammatory words, ideas, preoccupations, histories, mysteries and selves.

Text: James Salter
Video: Onome Ekeh
Lighting: Asami Morita

Speakeasy continues through Saturday with performances at 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
280 Broadway (enter at 53A Chambers Street), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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