Review: Spacious Slow Burns by choreographer Kyle Marshall

Even before the pandemic forced people into solitude, choreographer Kyle Marshall was working on a solo. In February 2020, he shared a ...


Even before the pandemic forced people into solitude, choreographer Kyle Marshall was working on a solo. In February 2020, he shared a work in progress at the Danspace Project, in which he asked questions about his Jamaican heritage, his homosexuality and the relationship between them. I can still remember the quiet, steady strength of its looping run around the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church, alongside the pulse of Bob Marley’s “Exodus.”

Two years later, that sketch became “I & I,” the center of gravity of a triple bill his company, Kyle Marshall Choreography, performed Friday at Manhattan’s new Chelsea Factory. For its first public performances, this arts center – which once housed the former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet – has teamed up with the nearby Joyce Theater to present four dance programs over two weeks. (Week one also featured Adriana Pierce’s #QueertheBallet; week two features tap dancer Luke Hickey and the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company.)

Marshall, who founded her company in 2014 and quickly rose to acclaim (while also performing with the Trisha Brown Dance Company), talked about the space that the pandemic has opened up for him: for rest, reflection and changes in his creative process. He leaned into his Caribbean roots – his mother is Jamaican; he grew up in New Jersey — and the festive aspects of black dance and music traditions. Bookending “I & I” were two recent small-band pieces: “Stellar,” a stage adaptation of a film he premiered last year, inspired by Afrofuturism and jazz improvisation; and “Rise,” which draws on the ecstatic, interrelated energies of club music and the shouting tradition of the black church.

While Marshall’s groundbreaking work in 2017, “Colored,” had an instant and indelible impact, the pieces on this program felt more spacious, sprawling, exploratory, slow rather than immediate knockouts – not long-winded, just taking their time.

Perhaps because it has been easier in the last two years to rehearse alone than in a group, the discreet but powerful “I & I” of a selection of reggae songs (by the Congos, Dawn Penn and Bob Marley and the Wailers), seemed the most fully realized. After setting the scene with fabric in the colors of the Rastafarian flag — green on the ground; draped in red and gold across two chairs – Marshall sits in the soft glow of Itohan Edoloyi’s lighting. Before the music gets carried away, we hear the lapping of the waves and the hum of an electric fan that animates the fabric.

Dressed in pants, a tank top, and a button-up shirt that he eventually loses—wrapping himself in these bright hues instead—Marshall weaves his way through poses and gestures that alternately suggest captivity and freedom, tenacity and letting go. The fists crossed above his head turn into languid, undulating arms; a flexed bicep is swept away by the other hand. One moment he’s lying stoically, the next twirling his hair or circling his hips.

In what could be a nod to his parents, who were both athletes, he goes from a squat to an extended jog in space. The songs he has chosen are largely about liberation, about returning to the promised land, and with its light touch, this work seems to reflect a personal as well as a collective journey. Moments of stillness, in particular, pop, like when he pauses to stare at the audience on the line (from “Exodus”): “Are you happy with the life you’re living?” It reads like a provocation for us and a question for itself.

In “Stellar,” which opened the program, Marshall is joined by dancers Bree Breeden and Ariana Speight, as well as sound designer Dial Winfield, who conjures up a sometimes piercing electronic score mixed with softer notes of trumpet, bells and tambourine. Wearing sweatpants and shirts painted by Malcolm-x Betts—dynamic canvases dotted with glow-in-the-dark accents—the three drift between improvised material and set material. Little by little, the structure, which begins with dancers swinging and catching each other, coheres around a shared rhythm of tapping and clapping, before relaxing again.

“Rise,” for the same cast plus José Lapaz-Rodriguez, seems to build on some of those ideas, while delving deeper into Afro-Caribbean forms. Here, Marshall is in conversation with Ronald K. Brown as much as with Trisha Brown. Sound designer Cal Fish, stationed in a corner of the stage, layers an ethereal flute over a house-inspired beat that drives passages of dynamic, devotional movement. To enhance the warmth of the atmosphere, Russell Peguero’s flowing white-yellow costumes and Edo Tastic’s sumptuous red-gold make-up.

In “Rise” and “Stellar”, the dancers still seemed to settle into the movement, or perhaps into the renovated space. More comfort and confidence can take time. But if the pandemic has offered a lesson in hope, it’s that a lot of good can come from a downturn.

Choreography by Kyle Marshall

April 8-9 at the Chelsea Factory, Manhattan.

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