It’s not often that a choreographer leaves so much for the audience to chew on without shoving everything down their throats. Yet that’s exactly what Portland-based choreographer Tahni Holt accomplished in Duet Love, which premiered Thursday, September 4, 2014, at Velocity Dance Center. The show, which ran again September 5-6 after the Velocity Fall Kick-Off showcases, is so open-ended that it left figurative blank spaces for the audience to fill. Along the way, the piece challenged the audience with perceptions of bodies, gender, race, relationships, and, ultimately, themselves.
Every once in a while, a work comes along in the Seattle dance scene where it’s difficult to pinpoint what it’s “about,” or even what it explores. Duet Love is one of them. But throughout, it continuously provided a space for the audience. In fact, Duet Love was full of spaces—physical space between performers, aural space between notes of the music, and compositional spaces in between sections, movements, and ideas. These spaces provided the audience with time to think and to re-examine what was on stage and how they perceived it.
Prior to the performance (and even as it began), the piece gave little context to the content. It had no narrative progression or story, so the material mostly rested on the performers. Identities like gender or race of the performers then played into the meaning. As the dancers started moving and gender-blind relationships emerged—whether tender, sexual, or friendly—Holt gave the audience hints of the subject of the piece. Whether she finally revealed the subject at the end is up in the air.
The performers were on stage improvising in pairs as the audience took their seats. The lights slowly went black and lit back up on the dancers, each dressed in sleek, modernist attire, complete with asymmetric cuts and glossy fabric. They assumed one pose after another, each suggestive of different natures. One pose was tender, like one half of a romantic partnership in a drama film, or vulnerable, with arms spread out as though anticipating an embrace. Another pose was sexually suggestive à la Sports Illustrated covers. Others suggested the nonchalant boredom of off-duty runway models photographed between fashion shows. These poses, and the essence they exuded, recurred throughout the work.
Among the different archetypes, Holt also interspersed beautiful improvised phrase work, with bodies moving in and out of the floor and weaving in and out of each other. The relationships between the performers (Allie Hankins, keyon gaskin, Ezra Dickinson, and Lucy Yim) had multiple layers. Although each had a distinct individual movement quality—some bound and controlled, some free and loose—they responded to each others’ impulses as a collective, as though they knew the others’ thoughts before each movement was executed. Luke Wyland’s score, from electronic beats to simple piano, was exquisite. No less sublime was Jeff Forbes’ lighting design, which cleverly played on shadows with floor lighting and standing lights.
Midway through the work, singer-songwriter Corrina Repp entered glamorously and sang a rock ballad of love and loss. Although she delivered an arresting performance and a beautiful song, the short concert provided little to the context and was a little out of place against the arc of the piece. The song became a microcosm of the work as a whole: it had drastic changes in mood, costuming, and music, but all of it—both the song and the whole work—came and went, simply washing over the audience like a tide. Some audience members may have considered each choice that Holt and her collaborators made in the work, drawing meaning out of every move. The result would be quite a profound piece. However, others might view it more bluntly: as a long piece that provided so little context that it had no point.
The meatiest part came when the four dancers entered in long robes, faced the back wall, and swayed. One by one, they loosened their robes and let them drop, revealing their naked bodies underneath. They continued to sway, naked, for a good few minutes. In dance, an art form wherein the body is an instrument, a bare body can become a powerful statement. Here, the image of their nude backsides simply swaying allowed the audience to take their time in responding.
The reactions came in multitudes: surprise or even discomfort toward nudity, curiosity toward possible meanings, or a questioning of sexuality or identity politics. These initial reactions quickly turned into an analysis of the dancers and Holt—admiring (or even judging) the dancers’ bodies, questioning Holt’s choice to include nudity, and pondering the dancers’ shape or race and its relevance to a supposed meaning. This analysis then became introspective, viewers looking around to see how others were reacting and experiencing a sense of self-consciousness as though wondering whether they were processing Holt’s statement “correctly” (as if there is such a thing), or even questioning what our reactions say about our point of view. Yet after this multitude of thought washed through, a sense of boredom and curious anticipation surfaced, as the dancers continued to sway simply. In the post-show discussion, some audience members expressed several of these sentiments while watching the naked bodies move, from the swaying to the improvised phrase work that followed.
Ultimately, the power in Holt’s work lay in the way it used time to make a point, although “the point” itself remained an open-ended question. Duet Love forced the audience to sit with themselves and deal the with the work personally, and then continually question their interpretation. Because Holt provided so little context, how the audience received the work likely depends on how each individual sees the world around them. If one is conscious of social structures around gender, race, or sexuality, then the race and gender of the performer’s relationships may have stood out. If expecting a linear narrative in the dance, one may have been surprised, confused, or even disappointed by the performance. If a movement triggered a viewer’s memory, then that memory may have colored their interpretation.
In this, Holt made a risky choice. Depending on the audience member’s state of mind as they watched, she and the performers may have lost their attention right off the bat or at any point along the way. Even so, it’s a risk worth taking, because the reward is a discovery of one’s culture, way of thinking, and even oneself.
More information on Holt’s work can be found at tahniholt.com.