Dancing Desire: Rovaco Dance Company Presents KAMA (Review)

Queens, N.Y. Romantic love and loss thereof have long been popular subjects to dramatize in dance. But a recent full-length outing from Rohan Bhargava and his Rovaco Dance Company goes further. In KAMA (a Sanskrit word meaning “desire, wish, longing,” per the program), club culture, one night stands, BDSM, miscommunication—and, indeed, intimacy and heartbreak—are all on the table. It is everything I’ve come to expect from Bhargava’s work: musically sensitive, impressively athletic, achingly human when it wants to be. But KAMA alchemizes those elements to a different end, focusing on ideas that have previously only been undercurrents in Bhargava’s choreography: sex and relationships, vulnerability and power.

Elise Pacicco (foreground) and members of Rovaco Dance Company in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Elise Pacicco (foreground) and members of Rovaco Dance Company in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

It begins with the five dancers standing in a circle, facing out to the audience seated on all sides. The exact starting point of the work is somewhat unclear—were the lights raising and lowering on the motionless circle of dancers, fading in and out with an echoing sort of drone in the music, an opening salvo or a dress rehearsal fluke? But there is no ambiguity or lack of clarity on the part of the dancers as the action begins and expands; whether they’re simply dropping their weight into their heels to accent the driving pulse of the music, primping and posing to the beat, or, later, floating in and out of seamless bouts of partnered lifts and seemingly weightless counterbalances, their actions are crisp, intentioned. Elise Pacicco whips through multiple pirouettes, arms overhead, before sliding to one knee in the same breath, arching up and back; Alden Henderson flows between staccato impulses and smooth flips that take him from the floor to standing and back again. All five are virtuosic movers, and the choreography refreshingly doesn’t favor one gender over the other when it comes to distributing impressive, athletic feats.

Jihyun Kim, Anna Pinault, and Rovaco Dance Company in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Jihyun Kim, Anna Pinault, and Rovaco Dance Company in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

In the same way, stereotypically masc or femme poses or attitudes are even-handedly apportioned amongst the dancers throughout the opening. It reads as not just one night, but many—as though the camera is focused on characters who are going through the motions as party after club after party flashes by in time lapse around them. They might come together momentarily, but each remains decidedly alone, performing desire rather than using it as a conduit for genuine connection. Jihyun Kim snakes through the air with the assistance of the other four, by all appearances silkily in control even as she’s stretched out on her stomach far above the floor. Intentionally or not, the lift is reminiscent of a moment in the second act of Manon, as the titular heroine basks in the attention of predatory men—an appropriate allusion, given how quickly the power balance in these encounters tends to turn, how frequently the anonymous group is pulling one dancer or another into a moment they don’t seem wholly comfortable with. When Kim is slotted into a formation to lie prone underneath Henderson, she slithers out from beneath him, only for the other four dancers to forebodingly prowl toward her on hands and knees to recreate the image; not long after, Anna Pinault seems wary when she becomes their focus, even as she seems to revel in leading the hungering group crawling in her wake.

Anna Pinault (lifted) and members of Rovaco Dance Company in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Pinault (lifted) and members of Rovaco Dance Company in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

The music increases its pace and the group’s movements take on a new urgency, even as they repeat the same sequences and explorations to a different facing—yet another indistinguishable night—until Pinault is lifted to stand atop Henderson’s back and, having now paused for breath, the structure disintegrates beneath her. The five separate as the air becomes darker, smokier, to dance a phrase in unison—hands catching their own heads to stop momentum, then throwing their weight forward into a rapid somersault, bear crawling to stare one another down in silence.

Henderson and Nico Gonzales crawl towards each other until their hands meet, the women disappearing offstage in their periphery. Left alone, a duet with none of the intimacy that term might imply unfolds with the intensity and peculiar apathy of a one night stand. At first, the more slightly built Gonzales seems in control, standing over Henderson before the two pull each other in and out of position after position, sudden stops and barely-made catches keeping the pair and the audience from ever becoming comfortable. They might get caught in an architectural embrace and pause there, rocking rapidly, awkwardly, unsteadily, before pushing for something new, impersonally testing one another’s limits, searching for something without quite knowing what it is. By the end, the balance of power has shifted to Henderson, whose eyes have hardened; Gonzales backs away gingerly, not taking his eyes off Henderson until the latter stands and walks offstage.

Anna Pinault, Kim, and Pacicco in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Pinault, Kim, and Pacicco in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Gonzales passes the women on his way out. The three come to lie on their backs, one knee raised, before they begin a mechanical trip through hyper-sensual poses in uncomplicated unison. The choreography’s earlier aversion to ascribing a particular femininity or masculinity to the dancers based on gender has disappeared, though the women remain impressively, unapologetically athletic. In perfect harmony, the trio rotates on one heel into a lunge, then sinks with steadfast control into a split; they sweep each other out of backbends and off-kilter extensions as gravity pulls them, running, from one corner of the space to another. This is how a culture dominated by the male gaze has taught you to see us, they seem to say, but we’re stronger than you give us credit for.

The tone shifts after Pinault is left briefly alone and the other two return with a black mask. They stride to where she is on her knees, and after only the briefest hesitation, a look of mingled uncertainty and anticipation crossing Pinault’s face, she eagerly pulls it over her head. She finds her hands and knees and the two women alternately manipulate her movements—pressing down her shoulders, shifting her hips—and stalk around her in circles with a focus that is borderline malicious, watching her tremble through a repeated sequence. When they leave, Pinault continues, dropping to her elbows more and more frequently as she grows visibly exhausted, eventually curling up on her side, chest heaving as her breath gradually slows.

Henderson re-enters, now wearing a mask of his own. Pinault stirs as he crosses through a column of light and stands to meet him. They kiss, clinically, once, twice. (Spoiler alert: This is the only time anyone kisses in KAMA, and it’s through two layers of black mesh.) She steps back, then tries to catch his face in his hands for a third, but he drops into a deep plié, hand pulsing over his own heart. The pulsing becomes a curdling of his fingers, then spasms that rack his frame; Pinault, somewhere in the midst of this, circles him before leaving the space.

Henderson in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Alden Henderson in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

The tone of the solo that follows is difficult to pin down: Henderson veers between silly, tongue-in-cheek provocation and near-robotic precision (and sometimes, amusingly, the robot), interspersed with something akin to both a breakdown and a computer malfunction. One moment his hands are bladed at his hips as a leg sweeps through a wide arc to float behind him, torso jerking against the stillness as his elbows tick down in opposition; the next, he is peeking cheekily over one shoulder as he rolls his hips. The other four slowly re-enter in pairs as Henderson continues, circling the perimeter on hands and knees, their angular, piecemeal phrase evoking a clock ticking faster and faster. In the center, Henderson’s garbled hands cease to be his own, one twitching and writhing before he pulls it back to where he’s curled in on himself, then crawling up his neck and face to shake him violently. The other four encroach on the center, echoing Henderson’s moves and then leaving him as he struggles.

Pinault in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Pinault in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

“I’m so sorry,” an unseen voice insists. “Please,” it breathes. “Stop.” More in this vein and the sound of labored breathing (a marked departure for Saúl Guanipa’s hitherto driving, atmospheric score) accompany Pinault, once again masked, as she crawls through and between numerous spotlights, trailing smoke. She quotes earlier movements without fully committing, never properly rising from the floor, flinching away from the light. The passage hammers home that no one in KAMA seems to be having a particularly good time of it. At best, their exertions leave them exhausted; at worst, shaken and shaking. It’s all well and good when they’re part of an anonymous mass, primping and posing and provoking. But when the work zooms in on an individual, the barest scrap of vulnerability is twisted, trampled over.

Henderson and Gonzales in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Henderson and Nico Gonzales in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

It’s no wonder, then, that when Gonzales and Henderson quietly re-enter together in an easy embrace, eyes steadily, tenderly locked on each other, it feels more subversive than anything that preceded it. Hands caressing each other’s faces, necks, shoulders, they slowly revolve into the space as though they share a gravitational center. (“I love you,” the score breathed into the dark just before their entrance ushered in silence.) The care and attention the two bring to these simple touches—fingers twining, an arm slid around a waist—is immediately more intimate than any closer, headier grasping found elsewhere in the work.

Gonzales and Henderson in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Gonzales and Henderson in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Gonzales places Henderson’s hands above his head, the latter’s eyes lighting with a small, private smile that doesn’t budge as Gonzales sinks into a slow plié to trail his own palms down to his partner’s hips. (It’s worth noting that while Gonzales is clearly the same character from these dancers’ earlier duet, Henderson, as I read the scene, was not meant to be.) Gonzales taking the lead is not the only idea or image transferred from their earlier interactions, but the shifts in position—Gonzales draping his hips over one of Henderson’s shoulders to tip into an inversion, Henderson settling Gonzales’ weight on his knee as he arches back—are now slow, supple, as though the pair are luxuriating in how well they fit together. The atmosphere could not be more different: When Henderson’s shin traces a slow arc on the floor to slot his knee between Gonzales’, neither breaks eye contact, or seems to want to be anywhere else.

The two clasp hands to rise to their feet and, as the music regains a sense of melody, they disentangle so Gonzales can turn away and slide his hands to his knees, Henderson finding the same pose behind him. Palms take measured steps and rise to hide faces; necks roll deliberately; shoulders support planks as the ground seems to shift beneath them. Everything unfolds in unhurried unison until they face each other as long chords sound in the music. Gonzales walks and Henderson catches his shoulder, hand drifting down to the other’s wrist. They repeat the action but this time Gonzales catches Henderson up in a jarringly desperate hug before he extricates himself and returns to his beginning position, hands on his knees.

Gonzales and Henderson (behind) in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Gonzales and Henderson (behind) in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

As a choreographer, Bhargava has a fondness for purposeful repetition. Early in the piece, it seemed as though entire sections were repeated merely to give more audience members a chance to see the architecture of it all from a different angle. Here, however, it is used to devastating effect. As Gonzales begins the sequence he had just danced in unison with Henderson over again, the other man does not join him. Instead, he traces a hand up Gonzales’ spine where he is hunched over his knees, constantly keeping a hand on him or his face in view as Gonzales, seemingly unaware of his presence, continues. When he curls up on his side, Henderson settles behind him, covering his limbs with his own. But the stillness does not last long, Gonzales flitting past too quickly for Henderson to do anything but watch and try to grasp him when he slows. They catch each other in another hug, but this time Gonzales shrinks within it, clutching at Henderson’s hips until he is slowly lifted over one. Gonzales threads his legs between the other man’s, his back pressed to Henderson’s chest until he’s lowered to the floor. Gonzales slips out from underneath Henderson and presses him into the ground, recalling the women’s trio. He rolls Henderson onto his side before slowly returning, yet again, to stand with his hands on his knees.

This time, Henderson hesitates, withdrawing his hand the instant before it touches Gonzales’ spine. He steps around to stand in front of him, but if Gonzales sees him as he repeats the same phrase, he gives no sign, too caught up in his own head, his own patterns to let another person pull him out. Henderson slowly backs offstage, regret replacing the quiet joy he’d worn before, and Gonzales turns away to continue the phrase. He lingers lying on his side—the moment where Henderson had grounded him before—and jolts to his feet to look to the corner from which the other man had long since disappeared.

Gonzales in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Gonzales in KAMA. Photo by Josh Pacheco Photography, Courtesy Rovaco

Gonzales is looking around frantically, disbelievingly, as the too familiar strains of “Visions of Gideon” play. His arms and head fly back as though buffeted by a gust of wind or something stronger, then recovers. He lingers in a deep fourth position plié, hands tracing the arc of the sun, or in a backbend, toes slowly uncurling. He throws himself through the air, tearing through space with his arms flung around his torso, recoils from what he reaches for. He lands on his knees, lying back so his shoulders touch the floor behind him; he pulses up from his chest, straining onto the arches of his feet. We’ve seen this before, in the opening nightclub sequence, but now the image aches. Another flurry of movement, familiar gestures and a cradled head, and he lands on his back, shaking as he arches up. The lights go down on him curled on his side, as shaken and profoundly alone as every other character too closely examined in the work.

It takes its time getting there, but KAMA affectingly illustrates the essential unknowability of every other human we meet, exploring vulnerability without sacrificing an iota of the dancers’ virtuosity. Bhargava has something worth exploring and excavating further here, and a stellar cast with which do it—particularly Gonzales, the only remaining original company member who has long been a standout for his quietly powerful performance quality.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Courtney Escoyne is an associate editor at Dance Magazine. A graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, her writing can also be read in Pointe and Dance Teacher, and on her blog, Thoughts From a Ballet Nerd.

Comments are closed.