Queens, N.Y. In January, Green Space’s monthly curated performance series, Take Root, hosted Kaley Pruitt Dance and U R B A N / T R I B E. The former presented a clever dance theatre duet that used comic book tropes to meditate upon friendship; the latter showed a physically and emotionally demanding contemporary dance work examining victimhood and complicity.
In Kaley Pruitt’s Super, there’s more than a little Bruce Wayne to Joshua Reaver’s performance, particularly in the opening sequence. He enters in a suit, carrying a massive sheaf of papers that he seems compelled to read. He drops them in stacks, walks away, returns to them, makes neat piles, runs away—all before he starts joylessly throwing them around the room. He picks up one stack and holds it in front of his face as he arches back in a deep lunge; the pages slip over his head to pool by his back leg. He re-piles them carefully, taking plenty of time (and garnering a few laughs) to re-order the chaos only to tear through them again a moment after he seems satisfied. Reaver dances throughout, beautifully and with an almost conversational naturalness, yet with a weightiness to his movements that speaks of exhaustion. This conclusion is confirmed when he rips off his suit jacket and sits with his head in his hands.
Pruitt enters then, carrying cheerful balloons tethered to a party bag. She straightens up a little but seems more concerned with her friend, crossing to sit next to him and bumping shoulders. She engages him until he can’t help but react, a give-and-take that results in wonderfully seamless partnering accomplished without either actually leaving the floor. They put on capes, sparkles and balloons to fight crime, conquer monsters, and crash a getaway car in a jazzy, deliciously campy routine that left the audience chuckling.
When Reaver goes down fighting, Pruitt revives him with the help of balloons tethered to his wrists and ankles. It works, up until Reaver tries to escape the very things that seem to make him better. I hesitate to give away more, as there is something immensely satisfying in the cinematic composition of the narrative. What I will say is this: Reaver’s performance was wonderfully nuanced, particularly in the repetition of some earlier movement material with Pruitt, and the end left me smiling. Despite the comedy, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Pruitt meant the title both literally and facetiously—the way you might reply on an awful day to someone asking, ‘How are you?’ Super left me questioning whether what we are afraid of isn’t often the thing that makes us stronger.
Hard Swallow, choreographed by Matthew James in collaboration with the artists of U R B A N / T R I B E, begins with the sound of someone heaving for breath—James, who is revealed just a few steps from the audience when the lights come up. Hannah Seiden stands by the large windows upstage, staring out at the Manhattan cityscape. Ali Castro is at the opposite corner of James, squirming as though trying to wriggle away from something inside her skin, sinking to her knees with exposed forearms as we hear, “I want to help you,” in the sound score. James starts towards Castro when he notices her, and she scuttles back, skidding across the floor. Melanie Gonzalez enters and stalks straight at him, but Seiden instead catches him in a surprisingly gentle embrace. Castro stumbles to the support pillar that serves to mark the downstage right corner of the space, then ricochets back to be lifted.
The three women stand separate from James, and like a switch has been flipped the gender dynamics at play become impossible to ignore. He runs at them and they scatter, leading into a hyperphysical duet for James and Castro—they crash together, retreat, re-engage. Somehow they find their way to their knees, James with his forearm wrapped around Castro’s neck from behind, using the chokehold to gently rock her from side to side like a perverse send-off to sleep. Something seems to snap and he falls to his back, pulling her on top of him; she rolls away after a moment and they lie curled toward each other, like children whispering of dark dreams past their bedtimes. They shift back into motion, flowing through unison floorwork until they once again land on their knees, now disconnected, both shaking, seeming to gag until an invisible force releases them. They drag themselves in opposite directions.
Connect, struggle, reprieve, repeat. It happens again and again, but with enough invention and variation that the cycle in which the dancers are caught only slowly registers. Some moments break through: Seiden opening her heart to the sky as her legs trace impossibly stretched lines through the space around her head; her duet with James in which he tosses her like a rag doll yet ends with her wrapped around his waist, the two staring into each other’s eyes as a dark lullaby plays; the women working together to hold down James, Gonzalez laughing as she throws him around, not letting him touch the other two; a repeated women’s section that oozes power but isn’t without its (choreographically deliberate) stumbling blocks.
For all that the four dancers share a ferocious attack and nuanced relationship to space, characters and personalities emerge: Seiden’s combination of kindness and strength; Gonzalez quiet yet fiercely protective; Castro struggling to break free of whatever it is that holds her; and James, aggressive yet fragile, hurting from the very behavior that he cannot seem to help but perpetuate. Striking moments reappear with the quality of a memory turned over and over in one’s hands, a search for a way things might have played out differently. The circularity is compositionally satisfying, yet calls to mind the reality of a vicious cycle—what does it take to break one, and then what?
Hard Swallow presents the sheer power of the company’s female members, not simply by giving them traditionally “masculine” movements or tasks (though they jump and take each other’s weight perfectly well) but by pushing them to unapologetically use their womanhood to its fullest potential. They are strong, vulnerable, sexy—that last because their self-possession and autonomy is absolute, even in moments of apparent fragility. The work is a compelling portrait of victimhood and complicity, illustrating courage yet leaving none of the four cast members totally unscathed, or lacking culpability.