Performing Arts: Dance
October 30, 2017
A Letter to My Nephew voluntarily admits a difficult truth – familial ties do not guarantee personal comprehension. The program notes that choreographer Bill T. Jones’ uncharacteristic working with Nick Hallett’s web of club music and hip-hop infused movement is an attempt for uncle Bill to gain an understanding of the circles nephew Lance has run in and what they reveal about the state of the world. Knowing Lance, though, is none of our concern. We must instead view the piece as its creator made it - a frame in which our own disparate senses of the personal and political connect in a contextualized identity.

Bjorn Amelan’s neatly kept set in BAM’s Harvey Theater consists of a highlighted intersecting runway, a fold-up hospital bed, some poles, and a large white square. There is an ant colony-esque group efficiency in handling these props. Systematic formations of pole structures seamlessly displace the people holding to move forward – a sense of continuity, perpetuity, and sustainability of time and population as more pressing than any moment or individual. Still, there is the bedframe, which largely serves as Vinson Fraley’s territory, assumedly a specter of Lance, a dancer/rapper who has struggled with addiction and illness. The company’s line of gestural offerings to him makes Lance out to be a figure who challenges the other props’ required selflessness with a stubborn sort of contrary individualism, rendered frail.

The white square serves as a large piece of blank stationary to receive Janet Wong’s projections. It, too, is seamlessly handled by the group – held in space as bodies reposition around it. Its lightness gives it a physical ease that doesn’t make it so much a dancer as it renders dancers as textiles contributing concentrated sets of data in the greater collage.

This kinetic data originates from each dancer’s individual method of strutting, mostly falling under a hip-hop umbrella except Christina Robson, who jitters uncomfortably as though she both doesn’t belong but has nowhere else to go. At any moment they will walk to the edge of the proscenium and pose, asserting physical presence to no true consequence.

This unfolds after a long, unprovoked fight scene, after which solos draw out the physical blip of each strut into a complete character sketch – Carlo Villanueva, for instance, projecting a nimble blend of elegance and aggression to a rap portraying a tough sissy. A second look at the initially shocking fight, repeated verbatim halfway through, shows that each member of Jones’ diverse company is equally made out to be a victim and aggressor, developing more sympathy for the event than the individuals inside, as though watching a tape instead of physically witnessing. With additional vocabularies ranging from classical, to postmodern breakdancing and vogue, we find ourselves amid constant physical code switching, a schizophrenic contrast to the comparatively utopian prop work.

Projections reduce loaded sentiments to pure language, allowing a similar perceptive distance as the repeated fight scene for contemplation. Fraley sings a haunting rendition of the Black National Anthem while across the back wall traverses the standard Star Spangled Banner. It takes a moment for the juxtaposition to register, partly because nothing in either set of words about liberty actually conflicts; tensions lie fully in the associated sets of bodies.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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