No one can keep the audience in their seats, once the dancing starts. Within moments, people are on their feet, traipsing through a gallery filled with dazzling images by graffiti artists and following the dancers as they saunter, swing and dodge, performing “Trouble With Find Me: Remixed” at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. The lure of the movement proves irresistible.
In an inspired pairing, this performance in the museum’s Live Arts series, on Nov. 21 (with two more shows scheduled for Nov. 22-23), brought together the hip-hop rooted choreography of Doug Elkins and the flamboyant styles of New Jersey-based graffiti artists featured in the exhibition “Aerosol: Graffiti/Street Art/New Jersey/Now,” curated by Will Kasso Condry. Elkins created “Trouble Will Find Me” for the proscenium stage, commissioned by the all-male dance troupe 10 Hairy Legs. But taking a cue from the late Merce Cunningham, he has re-imagined his 2014 dance as a “museum event” of a particularly mobile and interactive kind. Traveling from room to room, members of 10 Hairy Legs take the audience with them. And as onlookers either press in close or stand back warily, rearranging themselves to give the dancers room, the performance space morphs continuously, creating impromptu corridors and arenas in which the men can fling themselves, unwind a phrase, or tussle.
All around them the energy of late 20th century street art crackles and explodes. Calligraphy meets cubism as slashes of bright color jump off the white-paneled walls, the graphic shapes propelled by their own shadows. Cartoon figures interrogate passers-by. But it is the dancing that truly transforms the gallery into a kinetic environment. For an hour or so, the museum becomes a living thing.
This presentation is undeniably exciting. How well it serves Elkins’ creation remains an open question, since the already gorgeous “Trouble Will Find Me” had to be thoroughly deconstructed. In the process, the dance has gained moments of intense focus and clarity, but also has lost its coherence as an ensemble piece.
The “Remix” is essentially an experiment in fragmentation. The first sacrifice is “Trouble’s” original score by the celebrated Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, which the choreographer replaces (mostly) with a series of vintage pop items. Here the campiness of 1970s disco matches the preening attitude of gestures that Elkins must have borrowed from a voguing runway, while the scratching and feedback loops in a recording by an uncredited DJ epitomize the playfulness of hip-hop. When Khan’s music returns unexpectedly near the end, however, it reminds us how much the original dance owed its impact to those rhythms and to that sensual vocal line.
The first, stage version of “Trouble” was filled with sly smiles and treacherous invitations. And while some of those invitations are still present —a hand extended, only to be snatched away; a touch brusquely rebuffed — the smiles are gone now and the atmosphere of seduction is diminished.
That atmosphere, it seems, had been very much a team effort. Here, in the remixed version of “Trouble,” solos seem to predominate, affording viewers a more intimate look at some of the remarkable things Elkins gives his dancers to do.
Leaning so far back that he seems about to flip over, Alessandro Cottone suddenly twists and lands on the floor in a cat-like crouch. Alex Biegelson launches himself into the air with a handspring, and there are sudden kicks and spins punctuating solos made up of deceptive, rocking lulls, and sinuous feints. Duets and multi-dimensional trios are even more interesting, with the men diving through one another’s legs or through the narrow aperture created when someone reaches back to grab his own foot raised behind him. All these elements were in the original version of “Trouble.” Here they no longer need to catch Khan’s rhythmic wave, and so lack a certain daredevil thrill.
It must be especially difficult to dance hemmed in by a bunch of gawkers whose movements are unpredictable. In the museum, the dancers need to worry about our safety as well as their own; and there’s always the risk that a viewer will get so carried away he or she will want to join the party. The “fourth wall” is there for everyone’s protection.
Still, the men of 10 Hairy Legs are nothing if not game, and several distinguish themselves, including Cottone, who surrenders completely to the movement, and the particularly sinuous Vernon Brooks.
Someday soon, with luck, “Trouble Will Find Me” will be back on stage. In the meantime, “Remixed” offers a terrific opportunity to get to know this dance from the inside out.
“Trouble Will Find Me: Remixed” will be performed again at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, Nov. 22-23 at 9 p.m.; visit morrismuseum.org.
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