*Critic’s pick: Amanda Hunt and Alex Romania [If I Were]

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If I Were, a dance installation created and performed by Amanda Hunt and Alex Romania, is the best piece I have encountered by young artists of this newly-graduated generation. I even arrived late and missed the heart of the performance, the short dance piece If I Were from which the whole show gets its name. But what I did see was a consistent, brilliantly-crafted, thought- and heart-provoking duet of two artists and best friends. These two dancers are fluid improvisers and fiercely vulnerable performers, but they are also solid multimedia artists, fluent in many forms. If I Were is a thematic kaleidoscope, ever-shifting amongst ideas of queerness, intimacy, human essence, and personal identity.  Free of the task of looking past mediocrity or inexperience to find redeemable elements, this was truly the first piece made by artists in their early 20s in which I was able to lose myself and wholeheartedly enjoy.

When one enters the space at The Glasshouse in Brooklyn, one finds onself in a detailed, laboratory-clean, yet warmly ethereal installation. On the first floor, one may first notice the clothes hung on a rack and on the walls, humanity’s predominant tools of gender expression, now displayed as such, as merely expression. Hunt’s delicate, sweeping drawings are on the walls; bones, hair, men, women, pregnancy, sagging skin, lack of definition, formlessness are seen in them, furthering this question of the boundaries of sex and gender and the places where they blur. Microscope slides pepper the walls of the lower level, displaying cells, blood smears, bacteria, words on newspaper, keys of different types, each a minute piece of artistic research. And at least fifty percent of the show is accompanied by a poignant, otherworldly soundscape. Yet every 15 minutes feels like a brand new installation, as Hunt’s and Romania’s bodies shift around the space and themselves become visual art. The installation exhibits general virtuosity of composition and craft, a testament to the many talents of these two dancers.

And the two are, of course, incredibly well-versed in the world of dance, as is evidenced by their free and eclectic style. Hunt and Romania utilize their own method of contact improvisation, one that seems to maintain its integrity through physical contact and distance alike. The dancers naturally employ the Viewpoints technique in their spatial relationship, and one sees Trisha Brown echoing in their physical life. The first dance I witness (as I walk in, regrettably, late) is my first chance to experience the gorgeous interplay of these performers and their brilliant video designer, Kyler Zee. This piece, coined by Hunt and Romania as their “4D dance,” is an improvisation recorded in live feed and projected on a large wall. Zee’s design, as is often the case in the show, is a crucial participant in the artwork, blurring, overlapping, and superimposing the captured feed of their dance, truly making the piece an improvisation through space and time. All of Zee’s work in the show displays incredible mastery of his art; his videos are crisp and clear with mesmerizingly rich color, an exciting and welcome contrast to the trend of distorted, indiscernible analog video in the gallery world.

If I Were, however, is certainly more than the sum of its parts. The piece’s greatest strength is its conceptual unity, its unfolding of each performance and artwork as an evident piece of research in the artists’ creative experiment. “Watch us try to merge ourselves!” recite Hunt and Romania in a singsongy voice. Then the two performers launch into the most hysterical metaphor of the show. A goofy track begins to play. Both performers, standing on either side of the projected image, attempt to read the ‘lyrics’ to this song off the screen karaoke-style along with the track’s quick beat. The lyrics, consisting of different combinations of ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘me,’ go by much too quickly for the performers (and the audience!) to read correctly. The words themselves begin to be said at once; indeed, they begin to merge, and the result is a brilliant, performative metaphor for the inability to define oneself, or to place oneself on a binary system of gender.

If I Were is a study in divergence as well as convergence. At several points in the evening, the two perform solo on separate floors of the installation, allowing the audience to experience each artist on their own, sometimes as dancers, sometimes storytellers. While much of the performance examines the intricate levels on which humanity is related, these intimate one-on-ones highlight irrefutable individuality. Yet, Hunt and Romania maintain a gossamer interconnectedness. Romania builds a poignant, otherworldly soundscape on a sampler upstairs; Hunt improvises to it downstairs. Romania setting the sonic canvas, Hunt painting the music in space with her body, the two facilitate a gorgeous image of divorced interdependence.

This recurring bittersweetness, this painful elegance, is undoubtedly part of Hunt’s and Romania’s shared artistic imprint. Much of the performance emanates delicate, loving intimacy: pale colors, whispers in microphones, casual nude bodies, shirts as handtowels in the restroom. In one deeply moving moment, this intimacy expands past the boundaries of installation, engulfing the audience in its glow. This moment is unassuming at first. Arbitrarily walking downstairs, leaving Hunt’s solo performance behind on the upper floor, I discover Romania with a small group of people, playing with a truly magical instrument that I have never encountered, a digital microscope. Now himself among friends, yet still with a performative gleam in his eye, Romania guides the small group in a molecular exploration of their bodies. With much laughter and awe, spectators discover the invisible world contained in their hair and their skin, under their feet, and within their wounds, projected as an image several times larger than the human body. These projected images make inconceivably beautiful video art. Slowly, the room becomes full of friends and strangers; a stirring, empyrean soundscape plays; glowing colors and braided fibers whizz by on the screen; and I am at the point of tears, deeply moved not only by the ineffable beauty of the human body, but by this rare moment of profound sharing and vulnerability amongst strangers in a room, humbly facilitated by a handful of young people.

If I Were is a science experiment. It puts bodies behind glass (sometimes literally, with Hunt and Romania duetting behind plexiglass screens), questioning what is essentially, physically human and what merely social construction. And like any good science experiment, If I Were has a very simple central question (can two people merge?), extensive research, and, importantly, a strong, honest conclusion. In this case, the conclusion is a beautiful, image-rich dance improvisation. Hunt’s and Romania’s bodies transform in this dance, one moment cells merging and splitting, another moment themselves, plummeting through space and time. Their physical language, combined with Zee’s compilation of our digital microscope video, reads somehow beyond the laws of physics. One can see atoms flying everywhere, their bodies stretching, falling apart, dissolving, expanding, and morphing; their bodies seem to converge. Yet, If I Were complicates itself with all the ways in which they cannot merge: their different bodies and sexes, their personal histories, their own desires not to merge simultaneous to their desires to try. In this way, If I Were is an emotional science experiment. It zooms in to the cells of a body and sees pain and history woven into their fleshy fabric. It takes the wish to be another person, the wish to be another gender, or the wish to be intertwined, and pushes it to the limit of possibility. But If I Were also leaves behind the faults of science, forgoing black and white and definition and the “fragile objects of heterosanctity [we] pray to.”  Rather, it celebrates the liminal, the queer, the choice to be separate, the choice to be oneself.

Amanda Hunt and Alex Romania set the bar for artists in their early 20s. The two duet smoothly across media, incorporating audio, video, and three dimensional art in their dance work with an elegant ease. Yet, for all that is planned, pre-made, pre-filmed, and choreographed, their work is largely improvised, a risky choice fearlessly made to allow for the beauty of the unpredictable. These two may be just out of school, but there is nothing ‘student’ about this work. Professional and refreshingly honest, Hunt and Romania represent the best of New York’s newest generation.

Check back soon for the dates of their summer show.

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