On April 23, I was able to see the opening of ‘Black Hole; Trilogy and Triathlon‘, the latest production held during the 10th Anniversary season of New York Live Arts from TRIBE, choreographed by Shamel Pitts.
We, the audience, were not given programs before the show so I knew very little about it heading into the packed theater. Maybe the production staff were busy helping people into their seats after we all had to wait in the lobby until after the show was supposed to start. There was a rude fussy couple in the wrong seats behind me and when the usher asked if they would just move down one seat, the man said, ‘no, we’ll be staying here’. The theater brings out the best and worst sorts of behavior in people.
I enjoyed not having prior knowledge of the ‘about’ in this work, going in blind and taking everything at face value without aligning my interpretation to an explanation.
Here is that explanation, in case any readers are not such intrepid theater voyagers…
In BLACK HOLE, a trio of Black performers (all of African heritage)
share the stage in a narrative of unity, vigor, and unrelenting
advancement. Their journey originates in the darkness of the titular
Black Hole, understood not as a cosmic void but a metaphorical place
of transformation and potential. Engulfed in an evocative soundscape
of original music, sound samples, and spoken word, the dancers embark
on an hour-long, uninterrupted journey in movement in which their
tenacity and grace are emphasized by cinematic video projections and
stark, monochromatic lights.
BLACK HOLE – Trilogy and Triathlon concludes the Black Trilogy,
a series of deeply personal live performance pieces conceived and
choreographed by Pitts since 2015. The ﬁrst work of this collection,
a solo BLACK BOX – Little Book of RED, introduced the recurring
themes of this cycle: identity, search for the roots and community, and
personal evolution of the artist, born “young, gifted and Black.” 2019
saw the New York premiere of BLACK VELVET – Architectures And
Archetypes, “a haunting duet” (The New York Times) with Brazilian-
born Mirelle Martins. Collaboration with her and other Black Series
artists subsequently spurred the inception of TRIBE, a multidisciplinary
collective of international creatives, united by Afrofuturistic ideals and
*The NY Times review of this show used the word ‘afrofuturistic’ in their title. I’m guessing this is where they got that, since there wasn’t anything to me in the performance that suggested this ideal beyond the fact that all three performers were, as the ‘about’ says, of African heritage. The Times writer also told me I was in his seat and I wasn’t. I was there on time and I can read my own name on the reserved signage, thank you very much.
Before the show began, a circle of dappled white light with darting black shadows shined at the downstage center. It looked to me like a pond with tiny developing creatures, fish or tadpoles. The show begins with darkness except for that circle, the hole from which the three dancers slowly emerge from underneath a tarp designed by Naomi Maaravi, crawling out towards the back, the hands and arms pulling their stretched legs until they begin to use both hands and knees. This was a very successful introduction of biological evolution. The way they twisted their hips, legs, and feet while pulling themselves along the stage evokes images of fish tails, complimented in the hazy lighting with what looks like metallic body paint. They looked simultaneously wet and metallic, golden and scaly. It’s a slow opening, the music more atmospheric sound than melody, the choreography more movement than recognizable dance step. It’s effortful and slow, but in this way, it’s easier to appreciate the changes. By the time the three dancers are fully standing and gazing upwards towards something they all seem to see is very satisfying.
Although they are on their feet, the three dancers- Shamel Pitts, Tushrik Fredericks, and Marcella Lewis– spend much of the performance not quite upright, more in a deep hinge backwards on bent knees. To me, it looks like the timely process through history of straightening out a spine, of moving from invertebrate to the erect column of bones that holds most of us up today. It also reminded me of past Horton classes both taken and taught that I dearly miss, even the flatbacks.
The choreography from start to finish just looks uncomfortable to do. This is not to say it isn’t pleasurable to watch or was not done with incredible speed, agility, strength, fluidity. But this is not the dancing of classical ballet or theater jazz, smooth and sparkly or graceful or sexy. It does not seem like they are performing for us, or even aware of us. They are trying to survive, and perhaps do so together. But we are not part of the conversation.
As a piece of storytelling, the choreography is one of the most innovative aspects of the work. There are clear threads of history and research on the evolution of the human body and demonstration of training in their balance and transitions. But the choreography is not a sequencing of steps despite the inclusion of jumps, turns, and lifts. The movement, impressive and engaging, seems natural and necessary to the world created specifically for this stage. This is not reinvention of the wheel of dance, but a dialing back of time so far to explore the language of the body before we had the conventional words, or steps that tell most stories today.
The only thing ‘dance-wise’ that I took some issue with was a few idiosyncrasies in rare moments of unity. At one point, the three dancers run in place, standing on their left leg, the right leg swinging furiously as they face the downstage corner. However, I noticed that one dancer’s right foot didn’t touch the ground at all- very impressive balance- while the other two dug the ball of the right foot on the ground before sweeping the leg back. One version wasn’t better than the other, but when the movement is sparse, small details stand out and this discrepancy threw off the timing. I don’t know if this matters that much for the overall story, and might be just a reflection of my ballet history where you would be destroyed by the ballet master if your pinky finger was different than the rest of the corps de ballet. We all look and speak in the world from the lens we had surrounding us, forced upon us, in our own personal histories.
Near the end of the piece, the dancers crawl back in the hole, then reemerge standing upright, the tarp now like a cape draped around all three, standing pressed together like a 3-headed king or queen. I did not understand this part. It just made me think of the 3-headed dog in Harry Potter, but like I said, personal history shapes our worldview and I’m historically a dork.
The music was a fascinating mix of static sound, text (which I mostly couldn’t understand because it was very echoey), classic choral composition from John Tavener, Nina Simone, and a final track that I have searched obsessively for since the show and can’t find. I think it’s an electronic piece by Actress and was the most rhythmic musical selection. For that reason, and because so much of the show is slow, drawn-out, the fast sections of movement done to amorphic music, I really wanted a fast movement section to accompany the beating music. Again, that may just be the traditionalist in me expecting a grand finale.
The sound was mixed by Zen Jefferson, who I immediately thought I knew from Interlochen Arts Academy. I had a friend in high school who went on to Juilliard, where Pitts also studied, so the connection seemed plausible. Jefferson did not have a bio in the program, so I looked him up on instagram. It didn’t really look like my high school friend, but time changes us. I just now remembered that guys’ name was Zen Masterson, not Jefferson, so I have to apologize to Jefferson for creeping on all of his instagram stories. I mean, how many people do you know whose name is Zen? I wonder what happened to that guy. All this to say, the sound mixing was really diverse and great.
It would be very interesting to learn Pitts’ process in coming up with movement ideas in this piece…..about process. I’m curious if the method of making aligns with the desired intent, if the dancers and choreographer had to sink themselves into the physicality of these characters’ struggle and exploration. The removal of classic conventions strips the showmanship from dance, we are left with something authentic. I often find that people react to dance by wondering, ‘what did it mean?’ Oddly, I doubt anyone had to wonder this overall with Black Hole. From staging, costume, lighting, sound, choreography, and performance, the work speaks in the part of communication and knowledge of what it is to be human that is buried deep within all of us.
What resonated most for me in this work were the themes of struggle, the need for connection, the desire for ascension. The work allows the audience to experience without being pedantic, it was uniting and uplifting. There is something spiritual at work, the sense of striving and journeying true at the core of each life. The piece ends with the three dancers walking together, gripping each other, looking up as the digital projections rain fast white streams of light on them, the stage light fading, leaving just the powerful beat of the music and the continuous jets of projected light. They seem like they are far down at the bottom of the hole, the light a threatening waterfall funneling down onto them. It seems like they have a very long way to go in this vulnerable, effortful journey, but they have each other, and whether they know it or not, the audience, sitting comfortably from our perch of time and evolution, is rooting for them. I hope they make it and I have no doubt they will.
I’ve been reviewing dance and art for more than ten years and this is without a doubt, one of the top ten most impactful, innovative, and simply incredibly awesome works I’ve ever been privileged to see and experience. It is this reason why this review is in fact, so overdue. I suppose the creativity and innovation here, while these performers have seemingly every conventional tool of a beautiful stage and fully capable bodies at their disposal, their willingness to go underground to the deep layers of movement that exist before and beyond the fancy steps and extension we see all over instagram these days is making me, as a newly disabled dancer, a bit salty. Having gone through the process of just writing about this show, the reminder of creation without convention, has made me feel a bit better, a bit inspired in my own life. I wonder if others in the audience are sharing in this reflection.
It’s as if I am in the bottom of the hole with them, in the water and the dark, looking up. I also feel as if I have a long way to go but I think I will make it and am personally very grateful to these artists for this work.