Touch of RED- TRIBE at New York Live Arts Review

On Thursday April 27th, I was invited to review the opening of ‘Touch of RED‘, the newest piece by choreographer Shamel Pitts and his company, TRIBE. The work was presented at New York Live Arts, where I last saw TRIBE’s performance of BLACK HOLE- Trilogy and Triathlon. Inspired by the quick footwork of both boxing and Lindy Hop, ‘Touch of RED’ blurs the line between combat and comradery, beauty and brutality.

My review of BLACK HOLE: read it here

The stage design is that of a boxing ring, with the audience sitting in the round on all four sides of the downstairs stage space. Upon entering, the sound is already buzzing, electronic, pulsing, rhythmic. The space is defined by four raised walls and a low-hanging ceiling, designed by the 2015 McArthur Fellow Mimi Lien and featuring cinematic video mapping by Lucca Del Carlo. Under Lighting by the veteran Australian designer Rus Snelling. the dancers are shadowed, costumed in boxing shoes, red athletic tank tops and leggings with their thighs, knees, and calves exposed from fashion designer Dion Lee.

Photos by Maria Baranova, Courtesy New York Live Arts

You enter mid-action, the ten-round duet performed by Pitts and Tushrik Fredericks already in motion. It looks like improvisation, the dancers relating to each other’s bodies in space and rhythms, but mostly seem to be in their own world as if warming-up before a fight. They coexist in space at the same time the way you might if dancing with a stranger at a club or standing next to an unknown person on the subway. The dancers start to make eye contact, move to the corners of the ring, sit on stools, staring each other down. Pitts looks to be more dominant in the beginning- a small smile on his face, as if playing a game- while Fredericks had an air of fearful desperation mixed with willful ferocity, prey that is cornered but not ready to submit.

This is a long piece for two dancers to perform. From the moment we, the viewers, interrupt their movement, everything is on display. There is athleticism in the concept and sheer duration of the performance, as well as the choreography. It is not just the quick footwork- kicks and small syncopated steps- or the expansive traveling, smooth transitions from suspended balances that fall seamlessly to the floor- that displays the physical prowess of these two performers. It is also how long they can keep going without becoming obviously exhausted. The dancing has traces of recognizable modern steps, lindy hop, even a floor sequence of rolls and partnering that looks like jiu jitsu or capoeira. They grasp hands and shoulders, push each other, throw, lift. It’s hard to tell if they are trying to knock each other over or helping each other when balance is lost. Each has a signature style, Fredericks often incorporating low-level wacking movement and impressive flexibility, Pitts fluid and smooth, powerful on both his feet and when incorporating yoga-like headstands. The choreography, the artists themselves, and the story unfolding is nuanced. Their interaction seems threatening and dangerous, but also relies on and couldn’t exist without each other. Although one seems to ‘win’ at the end, it’s not easy to pick a side.

A friend of mine told me that if you are smaller in size, or have short arms like I do, the best straegy in boxing is to stay closer to your opponent so that they can’t use the force from their longer reach to get you. You can be your most lethal when you’re close. Often I think relationships are the same way. A punch from a person you’ve drawn into your circle hurts so much more than someone who feels far away.

When I was in elementary school, the punishment for fighting with another kid was standing face to face, hands on each other’s shoulders during recess. The close proximity and forced gentleness were thought to increase empathy. I never got in a fight in elementary school, so I have no idea if this works or not. For most of us, perhaps in both boxing and in compassion, it takes away the defense strategy if someone else gets close. ‘Touch of RED’ is a work where the space – as opposed to time- determines the movement, exploring both the lethality and vulnerability with being close to another person. They are boxed in by the ring, contacting with and avoiding each other, their movement a reaction to, an attack on, a meeting with the other.

Perhaps because I live in New York, the presence of other people is always felt, oppressive even. I can hear my neighbors playing their awful experimental noise music, I can feel people pressing against me in the subways. Most of the time, the sheer number of nameless, faceless people always around me is extremely annoying or at best, something I’ve learned to live with. Then there is that rare person who holds a door, who offers you a seat, who catches your eye. This work made me think about how our physical bodies exist on earth together, and how our presence and beings exist in and alter the experience of others. How we shape the environment and the impact we have is maybe something that is easily overlooked or forgotten.

Red is the first color the human eye registers, a biological mechanism evolved to draw our attention to danger and sustenance, the ripeness of berries, the brightness of blood. ‘Touch of RED’ is all of these, a work that demands focus and attention. The redness of their costumes and much of the lighting design adds to the intensity and vividness of work. You might be in trouble, or miss something beautiful to look away.

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