Tahni Holt: Love and seduction, slowly

"Duet Love" at the Time-Based Art Festival starts deliberately and minimally and then starts to get nice and messy

Tahni Holt’s Duet Love is a confrontational joy to watch. It’s testing beginning is compositionally minimalist, but the second half justifies that glacial start.

The dance starts slow. Very slow. The four dancers languorously fall into a cycle of poses and hold them for minutes at a time without moving. The emptiness of the stage and the minimal soundtrack underscore what the slowness is saying—this is a dance without any hidden parts. Everything is simple, solid, and staring you right in the face. The dance is put together like Japanese carpentry.

The poses progress through a familiar, pop vocabulary of gendered, pseudo-sexual declaration—more “I am here, look at me” than “come hither.” Some are culturally specific, like the one I mentally called “the Marky Mark“. Others are general enough to remind us that, given a standard human body, the gestural range of seduction is finite.

Keyon Gaskin and Lucy Yim in Tahni Holt's "Duet Love"/Photo by Eugenie Frerichs

Keyon Gaskin and Lucy Yim in Tahni Holt’s “Duet Love”/Photo by Eugenie Frerichs

The slow start made it seem as though our attention was being stretched and limbered like the dancers had done on stage before the show began. Being forced to take it all in, sit with it, look again, look away, and look back. And repeat.

As the later transformations arrived, I understood the need for preparations like that. However, watching the audience through this section, I think the pauses might have been at least as effective if had they lasted about three quarters as long. Think of the spareness of butoh or noh—there’s a tension that carries over the gaps, a fullness while waiting for the drumstick to strike again. Here, the initial slowness didn’t necessarily require that energy, I think it would have been better for it.

Lucy Yim and Allie Hankins in Tahni Holt’s “Duet Love”/Photo by Eugenie Frerichs

Once things got moving, the minimalism of the dance was charged straight through the end with a steady, complex tension. The poses build into relationships, bending and breaking the traditional characters of the gendered identities they suggest. In such a minimal setting, every gesture and tremble presents itself for examination, and the tonal shifts are transformative.

Holt’s choreography has a maturity and confidence that makes the grand gestures with weight, rather than showiness, and the dancers projected a camaraderie you might find among a team of mountain climbers returning from an excruciating trial in a beautiful place very few people have been to.

The credits are heavy with local talent. Holt’s skill for building collaboration is on display as much as her choreographer’s chops: two of the four dancers, Lucy Yim and Allie Hankins, are members of Holt’s dance collective Flock and are stacking up impressive CV’s which include some of the most interesting original dance to come out of Portland in the last few years. (I was very happy to see Hankins at TBA again.) The men are just as prolific and talented—Keyon Gaskin has become one of the more exciting names in Portland dance lately, and Ezra Dickinson, while new to me, has been tearing up Seattle for some time it seems.

If you’re not content with a dream team of dancers, Robert Tyree as dramaturge should content you. It seems almost greedy to add an original score performed by Au’s Luke Wyland and a hair-raising solo by Corrina Repp. Not to overlook the lighting design by Jeff Forbes and costume design by Jayme Hansen and Kate Fenker. Chris Larson is credited with “Artistic advice”, which, while vague, was probably quite valuable.

 Each act was delineated by changes in costume—standard modern dance fare as we were introduced to the poses and roles, burlap sacks for the second slow down, then no costumes at all, then a parade of performers’ spangles and signals that became increasingly confused as the dancers swapped and stripped pieces. Aided by the slowness at the beginning, the deliberateness with which they each, slowly, shed their burlap sacks to expose themselves fully nude did command attention. Nudity in dance is probably like the F-word in comedy, requiring an experienced hand to handle it rather than be handled by it. Exposure is an integral theme of the show, so there’s a lot for the nudity to do and say. Our dancers unflinchingly drop their clothes and enter into some of the edgiest chemistry I’ve seen from a local troupe since tEEth.

 It’s a long show, and they travel far. The seriousness of the first act seems one-dimensional next to the confused, good-humored, testing, human mess that the dancers get themselves into as they explore each other, place their bodies in these roles and costumes, and turn them inside out. There’s some excellent dancing driving the journey, and it’s well worth the build up. Hankins gets to put the finishing touches on the new reality they build between themselves, and her wry grin at the curtain drop is on par with the ending of Boyhood. And that’s not a spoiler, because it’s all in how we got there.

Performed by Ezra Dickinson, keyon gaskin, Allie Hankins and Lucy Yim. Music composed by Luke Wyland with special guest Corrina Repp. Dramaturgy by Robert Tyree. Lighting design by Jeff Forbes. Costume design by Jayme Hansen and Kate Fenker. Artistic advice by Chris Larson.

 

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