Dance parties are an elusive thing to facilitate. There’s usually that awkward moment when only a few people are dancing and everyone else is sitting nearby nodding their heads to the catchy tune the DJ’s blasting in an attempt to get them on their feet. This awkward moment was conspicuously absent at Velocity Dance Center on Saturday, March 7, at the Dance Cartel’s West Coast Premiere of their electric show, ONTHEFLOOR—largely because the whole evening was a dance party that just happened to have a well-crafted performance tucked inside.
The brain-child of choreographer and dancer Ani Taj, the New York-based Dance Cartel established itself in 2010. According to their website they’re “after a new brand of dance experience.” While this might sound hokey, it’s also spot-on. ONTHEFLOOR, jointly directed by Taj and Samuel Pinkelton, seamlessly blended technical dancing and performance art with an immersive, organic party. That’s not an easy feat, but it made for an exhilaratingly fun experience. As an audience member, you weren’t just watching the show, you were in the show—out on the floor just as the title promised.
ONTHEFLOOR brought together the disparate worlds of the high energy, pulsing dance club, and the too often self-involved concert dance/performance art scene. A large part of establishing the club vibe was the setup. Limited seating made it natural for people to stand. Low lighting, a great DJ (DJ WD4D), and a bar in Velocity’s back studio made it feel like a club from the get-go. A projector looped goofy videos showing the Dance Cartel creating dance moves from everyday life (e.g., kneading bread, running from high tide at the beach), and breaking them down so anyone could learn and join along. The performance portion was facilitated by excellent crowd control. A list of rules informed audiences not to block the floor lights and to get out of the way if a body was flying towards you. It also let you know that if at any point you wanted to dance, you should dance. The lighting (designed by Vadim Ledvin and ilvs strauss) was also especially effective. Flashlights held by several guest performers (local dancers Markeith Wiley, Dani Tirrell, and Aurora Hull-Mullins) guided the action at several points and helped part the initial crowd to establish the stage area.
As for the performance itself, it was a mash-up of pop-culture references, rap music, fierce dancing, comedy, glitter, video, and theatrics—suffice it to say, there was a lot going on. The dancing ranged from casual to technical, but was always performed with unflinching commitment. Sometimes manically fast-paced, the action slowed down at just the right moments so as not to completely overwhelm the viewer. The show swung from theatrical antics (dancers staggering around in heels like drunken models with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths), to a conga line of dancers doing the Dougie, to an over-the-top dance dramatization of Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.” Taj yelled “Call me…Or text me!” as Thomas Gibbons broke away from her after this last faux-passionate rendezvous. “Yeah, ok, sure,” he waved back, breaking the moment’s cheese factor with a splash of 21st-century dating reality.
In this instance and several others, the group showed a knack for subverting situations by recontextualizing them with a slight change in music, video, or movement. Later, a single dancer slinked through a thoughtful modern dance phrase while the group watched her from behind. When the music shifted to Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” her movement continued while the others started tossing Monopoly money at her like stripper, completely changing the perception of the first section. Sprinkled throughout the work, these tonal shifts and juxtapositions lent the piece more gravity.
Another strength of Taj’s choreography was how it demonstrated the universality of movement. Very specific aesthetics morphed into each other with only the slightest alterations: a balletic temps lié became a hip hop gesture when performed with a slightly deeper bend of the knee. This mutability of dance lexicon, begs the question: what makes one step part of a codified system and another not? What makes something a “legitimate” dance move? Or one move cooler than the next? These ideas all dovetailed with the videos of the everyday gestures turned dance moves projected at the beginning of the show. While their effect is often silly (which is largely the point), they made dance seem less pretentious, more accessible, and ultimately more fun.
It would be remiss to not mention the stellar guest artists that shared the stage with the Dance Cartel. Friday and Saturday night featured local luminaries musician Reggie Watts and dancer/choreographer Amy O’Neal (Sunday featured HYPERNOVA and Georgia Sanford). On Saturday, O’Neal and Watts riffed off each other in their respective languages: she perfectly physicalizing his every stutter and iteration. It was two extremely talented artists completely in their element—they owned the floor and helped carry the party to a new height.
Alternately edgy, ecstatic, unexpected, culturally relevant, and always entertaining, ONTHEFLOOR proved that the Dance Cartel is on to something great. Channeling the amped up energy of a club into an immersive art experience, they engaged audiences in a way that utilized the best of both worlds. You never knew what was coming next, but like any good party, you didn’t want it to end.
More information about the Dance Cartel can be found on their website. The Dance Cartel was presented by Velocity Dance Center as part of their Guest Artist Series. More information about this program and about Velocity can be found here.