Urban Mythology: Kizuna Dance at Ailey Theater

New York, N.Y.  Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing an up-and-coming contemporary dance company present new work at The Ailey Citigroup Theater. The event was Urban Mythology (presented by The Rogue Dancers) and the company was Kizuna Dance, the artistic brainchild of choreographer Cameron McKinney.

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Kizuna Dance in “Three Poisons.” Photo credit: Sans Limites Dance.

Using Loft technique, a style created by McKinney, the company seeks to present work that uses contemporary and hip hop as a framework through which to examine aspects of Japanese culture.

On Saturday evening, Kizuna Dance presented two thematically and tonally disparate works: IKIGAI, a thirty-minute world premiere, and In Praise of Shade.

IKIGAI does not shy away from drama or virtuosity. According to program notes, “IKIGAI is inspired by the imagery behind untranslatable words in the Japanese language.” Watching the piece, it is impossible to know which words McKinney chose (and that is a whole other meditation upon the fundamental untranslatability of movement), but it is exceptionally clear that he chose them with great care.

Whether flying through space, moving in and out of the floor with mesmerizing ease and swiftness, or allowing a quiet moment to unfold in stillness, the dancers meet the inherent drama of the music with aplomb.

12218719_10156235743675634_1437648375_oThe rush of five dancers simultaneously performing kinetic solo material segues beautifully into one woman gently rocking another at the center, her legs holding her aloft and forming a cradle. Later, a smooth duet between McKinney and Ezra Goh (one of the most jaw-droppingly impressive bits of dance in the piece) transitions to a sequence of subtle moments in which the group stands over an individual curled in upon him/herself.

A winding, draping solo danced by Cassidy Samelian as the rest of the cast is collapsed in the darkness just outside her spotlight is mesmerizing in its subtlety and smoothness. This solo, along with the final moments of the piece–pairs dancing at a breakneck pace in counterpoint to each other filtering out to the duet that opened the work, McKinney snatching Reka Echerer out of the air on the final note of the score–is where the work was at its finest.

Interestingly, McKinney’s inherently exhausting choreography is it is at its best when the dancers are approaching fatigue, for these performers are so skilled and so hungry that instead of losing clarity they simply gain determination and grit; the long-legged Gwendolyn Baum invariably draws the eye in sudden bursts of speed and attack that pour out more and more as the piece progresses.

The opening moments of this piece were somewhat lacking in this intensity on Saturday evening, and some of the unison movements could have been tighter, as McKinney’s movement is so crisp elsewhere that any lack of clarity is obvious.

In contrast to the high drama of IKIGAI, the shorter In Praise of Shade takes an often comic look at the drama of “throwing shade” in today’s pop culture even as it explores the element of darkness in the Japanese aesthetic. Using umbrellas (literal shade) and signs with phrases that are either poetically vague or quoting directly from YouTube clips played as part of the sound score, the performers are asked to be melodramatic and wryly expressionless in turn, resulting in chuckles and outright laughter from the audience. And, of course, around and in between the comedy there is more well-constructed phrasework, here entrancing in its smoothness.

12236509_10156235751380634_555679260_oThough McKinney does not perform in this piece, it is here that his movement style is most clearly reflected by the company: a laid back elegance that just barely conceals tightly coiled whirlwinds of power and energy. The final image is of the six dancers lying in pairs, feet to feet, before three tip their heads up to look at their partners: both standing in another’s shoes and looking at their own shadows.

Across the board, the work is compositionally fascinating–beautifully crafted and well-timed so that one never becomes underwhelmed or inappropriately overwhelmed. The movement–and the technique of the dancers–is solid, intricately detailed without losing touch with these performers’ abilities to eat space. What really gets me about McKinney’s work, however, is how enjoyable it is to watch.

Here you have an obviously thoughtful choreographer grappling with deep ideas in a way that not only lets you see how much care was put into the creation of the work but also lets you sit back and be awestruck by the individual luminescence of the dancers.

Their demonstration of technical prowess without ever becoming overtly presentational is refreshing to see; this is also true of the ease with which McKinney allows moments to become comedic (when appropriate) without losing touch with whatever deeper concept he is exploring. And, on top of all that, I found myself wanting to find McKinney immediately afterwards and ask him more about his work–something that is certainly not always the case.

Keep an eye on Cameron McKinney | Kizuna Dance. After this performance, I certainly will.

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Photo credits: Emily Iva Photography. Courtesy Cameron McKinney.

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