The first time Sidra Bell presented work at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater (KST) was in 2009 at the annual newMoves festival. Since then, she has been back several times, and has developed a special relationship with the Pittsburgh dance community.
Last summer, during a residency at the Alloy Studios, the New York choreographer began work on a new piece called “garment.” Her week here culminated in a work-in-progress showing that left the audience eager for more.
“Garment” was largely inspired by identity and the clothing we put on (literally and metaphorically) to define ourselves. Back in August, audience members answered questions about their own experiences, thus influencing the work Bell continued through the fall and winter.
The evening-length piece premiered over the weekend. Before Friday’s show, director of the KST, Janera Solomon, encouraged everyone to enjoy the dance without looking for a storyline. Instead of performing a narrative, the dancers would move through a series of episodes without literal meaning.
In part one, “The Body Politic,” Bell was interested in clichés. Three male dancers were dressed in nude tights and low-cut leotards. Two women wore streamlined pants, and tailored black jackets that hung open to expose their black bras. The costuming broke typical gender norms.
The movement had the same contrast. One male dancer had a cheeky, almost balletic solo, perhaps considered effeminate. The two women shadowboxed, chests listed with assertion. By society’s standards, they might be seen as masculine. But the piece wasn’t about gender roles; Bell simply wanted the dancers to be who they are.
In one section, the dancers physically manipulated each other until one performer was shaking and another let his movement become out of control. The effect had an uninhibited feel, as if the dancers were attempting to rid themselves of definitions.
Another notable moment came when two women described, out loud, the movement they were performing. They took on different personas, using various accents and distinctive body language to mimic teachers of every kind. The men sat cross-legged at the front of the stage and shouted dramatically, “Oh, really?” after each scene. The comic relief was perfectly placed amidst the more haunting and thought-provoking sound and movement.
Part one ended with a dancer completely covered in a heap of clothing. She wasn’t visible, but we could hear her intermittently repeating, “I can’t see myself.” When she broke free from the pile, she placed different garments on her body as multiple versions of her own self. Abruptly, she stopped, on hands and knees. After a long pause, the lights went out.
The short second half, “new demon” felt like “stark individualism” to Bell. She wanted the movement to scream out loud, “I am here. I am a person. I want to be heard.” She likened it to an exorcism.
The twelve-minute section did in fact feel like a purge. The dancers wore simple white leotards to bring neutrality to the piece, but to also portray childishness. There was a youthfulness to the movement in its brazenness. Although the entire piece lacked restraint, the second half felt even more like the liberation of childhood.
Bell said she challenged the dancers with “ugly movements, movements that shouldn’t be done.” The result was thrilling, somehow frightening and comforting at the same time. Despite their bold insistence, the dancers kept the work performative. Like a beautiful and private ritual, we couldn’t look away. We could relate, even if we didn’t understand why.
The five performers were some of the most unique, expressive and secure artists I’ve seen in a long time. In “garment,” they pushed in an entertaining and commanding way. Pittsburgh is fortunate to have witnessed the progressive force that is Sidra Bell Dance New York.