In the current issue of Dazed, we look to New York, where a flurry of experimental dancers are using their bodies to tell their stories and shaking up the city’s underground dance scene. From the SOPHIE collaborators FlucT, who powerfully believe dance can be “louder than a voice”, to Richard McNamara, who seeks to communicate individual languages through his performances – these are the individuals turning movement into a movement.
“My favourite place to perform is on a music bill, because it’s really interruptive,” says Sigrid Lauren, one half of FlucT, the visceral, politicised dance duo spearheading a wild movement in New York. “We traverse the avenues,” Lauren’s partner Monica Mirabile adds. “We’re in the art world, the museum world, the music world and the dance world. And then something completely outside of it.” With Otion Front Studio, the dance space and collective they co-founded in 2014, FlucT have fostered a tight-knit community of performers. They disrupt all scenes, using their bodies to tell stories about capitalism, patriarchy, and control (or a lack thereof) – which is why you’ll find FlucT’s eerie, in-your-face performances on line-ups with musicians such as SOPHIE (the duo choreographed and starred in the musician’s outré “Ponyboy” music video), Wolf Eyes, Discwoman, and Pharmakon.
“When people use their bodies to tell a story, you can feel that experience, that embodiment,” Lauren says. “I’m inspired by seeing other people express with their body, because it becomes large – larger than a voice sometimes.” Physical performance “makes us all feel like family,” Mirabile says. “People in this community are diving into what it means to have iconographic movement and create a story that’s denser with emotion. That’s powerful.”
“Dancing is storytelling,” declares Tara-Jo Tashna, a dancer, singer and Otion Front member. Born in Jamaica, but raised in Jersey City, she grew up with musical theater flowing through her veins. When Tashna moved to Brooklyn, she started a music project called Dey, and now regularly incorporates movement into her intimate live music showcases. At MoMA PS1 last November, for a series called “Spittle of the Moon”, Tashna choreographed a piece where figures in white swayed and slow-danced to Dey’s ethereal, crunching sound. She has also collaborated with techno duo Boy Harsher, starring in and choreographing the listlessly sensual video for “Country Girl”. In the clip, Tashna camcords their reflection in a face mask, twirls in a gauzy robe and dances with carefree abandon basked in first red, then blue light.
“There are little pockets, but everyone pretty much knows each other,” she says of the dance scene in New York. In performance, specifically, there was a “collaborative boom” after Mirabile (of FlucT) and Sarah Kinlaw’s 2016 piece “Authority Figure”, for which Tashna was one of eight choreographers. The event created a bond, she says, emphasising individual experience and featuring musicians Eartheater, Caroline Polachek and Dev Hynes. “It’s instinctual, it’s guttural,” Tashna says of her collaborations with Mirabile. “You don’t have to try. All the emotions are already there for you to make it real.”
Choreographer and installation artist Kathleen Dycaico exhibits her nebulous, tactile routines in underground spaces across the city, sometimes with two scorpions on her mouth – temporary tattoos of scorpions, that is. American mythology has been on her mind a lot these days; cowboys and the desert and cherries and dice and casinos. It’s a theme she explored in her most recent piece, “Heartbreak Rodeo”, which was showcased in MoMA PS1’s spring 2018 performance festival. Dycaico, who was once an interior designer, was one of the original five founders (along with FlucT’s Mirabile and Lauren) of Otion Front.
When she’s not dancing, you might catch her bartending at local artist haunt Secret Project Robot, where she also curates the venue’s diverse art installations. Recently, Dycaico and her collaborators were booked at a Brooklyn party called “Don’t Sleep”, where their immersive, contact-filled performance wove its way through the rooms of the warehouse. Infusing spaces with something atypical and physical has an intoxicating effect on the audience, she says. “You’re in a metal venue in Norfolk, Virginia, and someone opens and does their thing and then there (are) these people there, with theatrical lighting and physical performances and contact mics... It’s not something people expect to see, but they’re blown away by it. I think people are bored of standing in one direction and (just) watching a band play.”
Richard Kennedy has been thinking a lot about the concept of asking for permission. “People are actively building their own space and not waiting for any sort of (creative pass),” the director, opera director and choreographer observes of the scene. After appearing in shows such as Wicked, the California-born, Ohio-raised performer was keen to dive into New York’s underground dance scene, to create, as they describe it, “the work that (they) wanted to see exist in the world.”
Kennedy says their introduction to Otion Front represented something of a turning point for them. They’d been “hanging out in Midtown” too much, but after going to parties and meeting a community determined to protect space for more experimental works, they decided to take the leap into conceptual choreography.
Having just finished their grad school thesis – a three-part opera called Her that centres on queer politics and concepts of decolonisation – Kennedy has also found time to release a soaring pop album called Open Wound in a Pool of Sharks, as well as choreograph for musicians such as SSION and DonChristian. “I’m always trying to speak in queer languages to the masses, and to have direct access points for all different experiences,” they enthuse. “We all experience oppression, no matter who we are, and the work is really dealing with that. It’s like apocalyptic creation. Forcing the guard to change.”
After following FlucT on social media and frequently commenting on their photos, one day Cheryl “Chucky” Rosario received a direct message inviting her to one of their practice classes. “That’s how I came into this whole family, and a whole new level of performance,” the dancer explains. She loves “the switch” – her term for merging technical performance with more experimental aspects – and the opportunities for collaboration that FluctT invite.
Since that initial hook-up, Rosario’s been performing with singers and rappers such as Cities Aviv and Nick Hakim, and with Alex Drewchin – aka Eartheater (“That’s my daddy over there,” she says about the musician; “I give her haircuts”). “It’s freeform, more expressive and more crazy,” she says of their onstage collaborations. “The last time we (played we) had blood all over us.”
When it comes to where she likes performing most, Rosario highlights relatively new Ridgewood venue H0L0 as a space core to the burgeoning scene, along with Otion Front, Secret Project Robot, and Happyfun Hideaway. “It’s so different when you know who these people are, and (can see) how they transform these spaces to be so welcoming and accepting of everyone.”
“It’s an exciting moment for nightlife in New York,” says acclaimed experimental choreographer Ryan McNamara, who’s currently working on a piece featuring “little monster dolls”. When McNamara moved to New York, the vibe was “over”, and he felt he missed a more spontaneous art scene. “Even ten years ago, being queer wasn’t as cool,” he says. “There were still remnants of queer meaning AIDS, meaning death.” But this moment in dance and music is special, he claims, and he’s impressed with the lawless spirit of Otion Front, with whom he often collaborates. “It’s exciting that they’re doing it themselves, for each other, and that people are paying attention.”
This boundary-less spirit is present in McNamara’s more transgressive pieces, such as 2014’s “ME3M 4 MIAMI: A Story Ballet about the Internet”, and 2016’s “Battleground”, which brought McNamara’s “sci-fi cosplay house-music ballet-battle” to the Guggenheim. For McNamara, the current meshing of clubs and queer spaces and performance dance makes total sense. “I am as interested in club dancing as ballet or Cunningham technique,” he says. “I love it when I see someone on the dancefloor and you know they know they’re killing it. Someone who’s just living their life out there is as exciting to me as performances in a theatre. It can be an immersive and formative experience. You lose yourself.”
Minneapolis-born dancer Jes Nelson grew up in a competitive dance studio environment: “Sparkles, leotards, stuff like that,” she says, comparing her experience to reality TV show Dance Moms. Today, her personal work is more minimal; it’s about “fucking with dance, dancing without actually moving.” Her piece “Sugar Babies” explores Nelson’s own competitive upbringing, those “stereotypical jazz, tap, ballet classes” where the instructor would tell students how to walk across the floor – until they got it right.
These experimental dance pursuits were kickstarted following classes with choreographer Ryan Heffington, and after attending one of FlucT’s open calls. It reminded her why she likes movement so much – “the psychology, how my body feels the release,” she explains. Now Nelson is starting Dance Lawyer, a collaborative project that will eventually evolve into something multifaceted: a platform for dance criticism and documentation.
The idea is for Dance Lawyer to stand in contention to what’s happening now in mainstream dance, she claims. “It’s a lot of not asking for permission, and fucking with the dance community,” Nelson says. “People are like, ‘Dance for us! Do this thing!’ and we’re happy to do it because we love to move our bodies – but we need to get paid, we need to be approachable, we need to have more people saying, ‘This is good, this isn’t good, this is dated, this is offensive.’ The performance world needs to be lifted.”
“A lot of my dancing is about letting go and allowing myself to just feel it,” says movement artist and art model Aarron Ricks. The performer, who recently participated in part of Nick Cave’s New York installation “The Let Go”, wasn’t classically trained. They met performer Tara-Jo Tashna through mutual friend Sasha Desiree (of the R&B group Silk Rhodes). Tashna told Ricks that Ricks understood their own body, and invited them to be part of a new piece she was writing called “Authority Figure”. “This allowed me to explore the contents of myself,” Ricks says. “It was like a new way of breathing, of thinking about my life. It ended up being this catalyst of brand new wind.”
Their work considers the tearing down of barriers between individuals. “I like to explore the emotions and depth of the soul and the spirit in connection to our own (bodily) vessel,” they say. These days, Ricks is as likely to perform in galleries as in innovative spaces and clubs such as Brooklyn dance party, 4th World. “There’s a colourful, childlike way of being able to go into a space, fill it with music, fill it with people and allow them to exist. (A club) is almost like an Atlantis,” they continue. “An incubator for creative people to interact with one another in a way that is carefree, and without structure.”
“Everything bleeds into everything else,” music producer and live exhibitionist Alex Drewchin says of the city’s electrifying alternative dance community. “That’s a simulacrum for so many other things that I’m feeling right now.” It’s also an apt description of Drewchin’s gorgeous amorphous electronic compositions (under the name of) Eartheater. “My understanding of music has always included the communion with the body,” she explains. “I can’t help it. I’m very in my body and there’s no separation.”
When Eartheater performs, it’s always an experience beyond music, where her body, props, fabric and lighting effects collide to make something freaky and full of emotion. It’s not uncommon to see her twisting, bending, and crawling onstage, sometimes balanced on her side, her legs above her head. It’s all in the body, she says: “As I grow in being a musician, I’m realising that the voice is my main instrument, and the voice is my lung, it’s my diaphragm, it’s how I stand, it’s my posture. It’s me breathing.”
“It’s catharsis,” Drewchin continues, talking about performance art. “Facing fear, processing fear, processing embarrassment, processing vulnerability. That’s what passionate, visceral and creative performance gives music.” She refers to a recent show at Boiler Room’s 4th World, where fellow dancer Aarron Ricks brought a gallon of blood to pour on her onstage. “It wasn’t anything subversive,” she says. “It was just, like, pure beauty.”