Foretoken, Three Poisons: Kizuna Dance at Triskelion Arts

Brooklyn, N.Y. For their first full evening repertory concert at Triskelion Arts September 17-18, Cameron McKinney|Kizuna Dance pulled out all of the stops. There was an old favorite, a world premiere, and excerpts from their next new piece, still a work-in-progress. As usual, the dancers met the challenges of McKinney’s signature high intensity movement head on (I’ve never left one of these shows without hearing at least one audience member comment, ‘I’m tired just from watching them!’); McKinney continues to intrigue with his beautiful sense of how to arrange bodies in space while threading his concepts (Japanese culture + pop culture) into pure movement.

Ezra Goh and Rohan Bhargava in Koibito.

Ezra Goh and Rohan Bhargava in Koibito.

The performance began with excerpts from Koibito, a new piece expected to premiere in 2017. Three sections were shown from what will ultimately be an evening-length, modernized re-telling of the Japanese heron maiden folktale. In the first, the three men of the company—Rohan Bhargava and Ezra Goh, soon joined by McKinney—make much of a simple yet mesmerizing hand motif (a flowing sort of pseudo-handshake), first seen as Bhargava and Goh face each other swaying in a center spotlight before expanding outward in the smoothest work I have yet seen from these dancers. In the second, the women of the company join the ensemble, becoming (quite believably) passengers on a subway car—suddenly the subtle swaying seen earlier reveals itself as the seeds of a much larger theme. Distinct personalities emerge from the listless commuters through moments of stillness and explosions of motion; it is here that I am unexpectedly reminded of Wayne McGregor’s Infra, which does a similarly successful job of evoking the hidden depths of the strangers who populate a crowd through athletic, abstract movement.

Rohan Bhargava, Cameron McKinney, and Ezra Goh in Koibito.

Rohan Bhargava, Cameron McKinney, and Ezra Goh in Koibito.

In the final section, Goh is left alone onstage. He becomes awkward, strange, nervous, fixing and re-fixing his clothes in between accumulations. Goh has one of the clearest grasps of McKinney’s movement out of anyone in the company, and that is put to good use here as the phrase—body roll into a deep lunge into a modified six-step, it begins—becomes longer and more frantic; Goh, for all his efficiency, purposefully looks so anxious in the in-between moments that it seems he might throw up. It ends with a withdrawal from the frantic pace, Goh stepping slowly into the shadows behind him, spine undulating in an uneasy mirror to the first section’s flowing motif. Excerpted as it is, the impression is of vividly colored sketches, already displaying a satisfying visual complexity that hints at the breadth the finished work seeks to attain.

Chelsea Escher and company in Three Poisons.

Chelsea Escher and company in Three Poisons.

I had previously seen a shortened version of Three Poisons, a company favorite next on the program that is the calling card of its female members. It is equal parts beautiful, funny, and profound, explaining the three sins of Buddhism (ignorance, craving, and attachment) with witty references to pop culture. It also physically pushes the performers to the limits of endurance (McKinney favors a hyper-physicality that he likens to “meditative exhaustion”). The piece is so beautifully balanced and well composed that it is impossible to describe without cheapening it. Therefore, I can merely applaud these five women for gifting the audience with the experience of witnessing this piece and recommend to anyone reading this that you see it whenever possible.

Foretoken, the premiere with which Kizuna closed the program, is divided into eight sections, with three character-driven duets bookended on all sides by more abstract ensemble sequences. The lights come up to reveal six dancers in a loose circle, facing out. Brianna Dixon, who has perhaps the softest touch of the Kizuna dancers, is the first to branch into movement, a smooth solo in which she spins to the ground and flows back to stand like water, seeming only to halt in a singular moment in which she plants herself facing upstage, an open hand raised before slowly crumpling her fingers into a fist. She returns to the circle as though completing a circuit; it rotates, and other solos and duets begin, the repetition introducing each figure. Bhargava is a standout here; interrupting invariably clear detail work with breathy balances, slowing time in a gravity-defying backbend.

It’s an effective and engaging gateway into the work, which according to the program notes is inspired by contemporary visual artist Manabu Ikeda’s work by the same name. Ikeda’s work is overwhelmingly detailed yet sprawling in scope, serious yet not so serious, and in Foretoken it seems that McKinney is attempting to capture this dichotomy. Painting an image in broad strokes while meticulously crafting spatial composition and showcasing many individual movement personalities within an ensemble is something of a specialty for the choreographer. It is for this reason that the work is at its strongest and most intriguing in these ensemble sections.  

Foretoken.

Foretoken.

In one, the group tightens and travels together to a downstage corner. They break apart to pace the edges of the space as Goh launches into the center. He dances until he overbalances, falling backward as though suddenly stricken by gravity only to be righted by the inward rush of the rest of the ensemble, who then return, Goh in tow, to the corner to repeat the ritual. In a later section, Chelsea Escher breaks away, eating space with smooth turns and flying forward with a leg extended to the sky. The group circles the space together as Escher flits around them, both drawn to and repelled by the gravity of their attention—they flinch when she looks their way, until gradually her interruptions become normalized, ignorable, even as her movements become frantic.

Inserted amongst these studies of the relationship of an individual to an anonymous crowd is a pair of character driven duets. The first, between Goh and Cassidy Samelian, charts the attentions of an awkward, overly eager boy to a girl who won’t give him the time of day. Throughout, Goh attempts to set up their spatial relationship so that one can lean on the other, just offbeat and contrived enough to cement the awkwardness. Samelian jumps with a leg flung to the side and Goh tries to catch her midair, succeeding only in grasping the extended leg as she lands. She shoves him to the ground. Their commitment to the characters and well-timed moments of physical comedy resulted in well-earned chuckles from the audience.

Gwendolyn Baum and Chelsea Escher in Foretoken.

Gwendolyn Baum and Chelsea Escher in Foretoken.

The second duet, between Gwendolyn Baum and Escher, was less successful, both in terms of comedy and composition. The movement is beautiful, but the duet elicited more pity than laughter and seemed to suffer from the protracted drama and repetitiveness of the Japanese pop song accompanying it. Though well danced by the pair, the relationship between Escher’s admiring younger sibling and Baum’s exhausted big sister (as I ultimately chose to read the relationship) developed too similarly to that between Goh and Samelian for it to feel vital, though Baum seemed marginally more tolerant of Escher’s attentions. I would be curious to see the power Escher displayed in the preceding ensemble movement carry through to this duet rather than just her character’s obvious need for attention.

The final three sections of Foretoken are the work’s strongest. In the next ensemble sequence (“Meltdown” according to program notes), Bhargava and Dixon form a diagonal with Escher at the center (prone, as yet unrecovered from being abandoned at the end of her duet). The phrasework is rapid, intricate, individual, Escher joining in seamlessly as the diagonal shifts smoothly, transforms to a tight triangle. Bhargava takes a solo while a trio dances a floor phrase with Kizuna’s signature silken ease and the remaining two pace; Bhargava and Dixon pulse with the music, keeping time as the remaining women dance downstage, hiding and revealing Goh, who excels in a groovy solo upstage. At moments the group comes together, running and then sliding to stop on a dime, diving to hover just above the ground in a breath.

Brianna Dixon and Rohan Bhargava in Foretoken.

Brianna Dixon and Rohan Bhargava in Foretoken.

The song changes, and Bhargava’s attitude shifts instantly from exhaustion to delight, shivering through a giddy jump and landing with a grin already in place, directed at Dixon. The rest of the dancers exit quickly (Goh garnered several laughs as he resumed his awkward character from his earlier duet, looking unsure of how to handle the suddenly sunnily dispositioned Bhargava). Bhargava dances throughout, courting Dixon in a manner reminiscent of a Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire flirtation. Dixon’s subtlety and open-heartedness as a performer is well-suited to the duet, meeting her partner point for point. Bhargava lunges, reaching out with one hand, and Dixon rushes over, fitting into the shape he has created to wrap her arms around him before breaking away to skate across the space together. This duet served as the preview for this piece earlier this year, and it remains heart-warming, beautifully danced, and unexpectedly lighthearted. Ultimately it was the most honest of the three relationships singled out.

Kizuna Dance in Foretoken.

Kizuna Dance in Foretoken.

After the couple walks offstage intertwined, the energy in the air shifts palpably. Baum runs on alone as the music changes from easy-going to driving and deeply felt. A seemingly endless leg extends to the side, nearly grazing her ear just before it folds at the knee—the simplicity of the retracting motion communicating uncertainty even as it’s sheer beauty raises goose bumps. The rest of the cast sweeps onstage as the music builds, flickering in and out of unison. Individual characters emerge, their movement recognizable yet re-contextualized: Bhargava with his arms straight, palms offered to the audience seems not a flirtation, as in his duet, but a plea for understanding. Goh leaps through the center, tips over backward almost serenely as he is caught gently from two sides. The detailing in each dancer’s arc is exquisite, yet the overall image is sweeping in scope. The final moment is taken together, the dancers collapsed to the ground, stretching their limbs skyward as though they could not bear to remain where they have fallen.

Overall, the dancers of Kizuna seem to have found a new level of ease with the material without losing any of the urgency that keeps the performing of it fresh. McKinney has consistently set himself with ever more challenging tasks, and thus far he has met them with aplomb. I very much look forward to seeing where Kizuna Dance grows next.

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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.

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