Saturday, October 19, 2019

From sea to shining sea with Kayla Farrish

A still from The New Frontier
(photo: Alexander Diaz)

The New Frontier (my dear America) Pt. 1
Kayla Farrish/Decent Structures Arts
Danspace Project

I admire the energy burst and largeness and hearty ambition of Kayla Farrish and her premiere at Danspace Project--The New Frontier (my dear America) Pt. 1. The title hints at what will come: "Here I am, a Black woman, a Black woman dance artist, and I'm going to wrap my mind around what it means to take over this venerable performance space for essentially two hours (even with a 15-minute intermission between two "acts," rare for a Danspace Project show), and I'm bringing in my talented folx to grab up and slice through this space like human buzzsaws. I'm going to show you that anything can happen here in this American space. And, by the way, this is only Pt. 1."

Even before the piece starts, it starts. I took my seat and saw dancers scattered and drifting around as a recording of Sinatra singing "My Way," his anthem to a lifetime of self-assertion. Some decidedly non-official US flags rested on the floor. The intermission is populated by an "intermission entertainment" (a fine solo performed by Dorchel Haqq to the Sammy Davis, Jr. recording of "Mr. Bojangles") and, later, dancers, with homey informality, going about the work of arranging props, set and lights for Act 2.

Resembling less the legendary American melting pot than a full washing machine on spin, The New Frontier includes a soundscape that, along with Frank and Sammy, might touch down now in dreamy Debussy realms or terrains of Nina Simone or hip hop. And a film--set to premiere as its own entity in 2020--fills in gaps between live dancers with looming images of other performers on a beach. That's a smart way to tame the intimidating volume of St. Mark's Church.

Containing multitudes, The New Frontier is, itself, a quilt stitched from two earlier Farrish projects--With grit From, Grace in Act 1; Black Bodies Sonata in Act 2--her film, and the writings of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and others.

If expanse and dynamic variety are a large part of what makes America (more properly called the United States) America, they are also what makes this interdisciplinary piece off-balance, hard to figure out and, ultimately, less effective as a work of dance theater than it might have been. As a viewer, I sought meaning and coherence and had to settle for individual bits and pieces that drew me in--like a fantastic second-act duet, by turns wheeling, churning, swooning and sensitive, between Farrish and Kar'mel Small performed near a fan-blown stretch of fabric that evokes everything from a silky bed to a rushing stream. Compelling narratives suggest themselves here--nothing terribly obvious, just enough to make us take notice and care. While I enjoyed the skills and gusto of the dancers throughout the evening, I would have liked to care as much about all of The New Frontier as I did about this duet.

Farrish's vocal projection in her spoken parts would benefit from coaching, especially to overcome the challenges of St. Mark's Church and occasional competition from other sound. It was discouraging to miss so much of the delivery of her opening monologue (written by Nik Owens) and other texts throughout the evening. Even so, the implied correlation, here, between the seductions of the American Dream and the seductions of social media feels undercooked and awkward. It felt both necessary and unnecessary to try to tune it in, both sad and a relief to let go and tune it out.

Live performers: Kayla Farrish, Dorchel Haqq, Emilee Harney, Kar’mel Small, Mikaila Ware

Film collaborators and crew: Alexander Diaz, Kayla Farrish, Dominica Greene, Kerime Konur, Rebecca Margolick

Lighting: Carol Mullins
Costume collaboration and design: Athena Kokoronis

The New Frontier (my dear America) Pt. 1 concludes its run this evening, Saturday, with an 8pm performance. For information and tickets, click here.

Danspace Project
131 East 10th Street (and Second Avenue), Manhattan

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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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