Vinyl Love Affair

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Vinyl Love Affair, Theatre Yin Yin’s sensual dance theatre piece, made its debut this season at the Producer’s Club in midtown. This refreshingly simple duet, a collaborative creation of director Candis Jones, physicalizes the downward spiral of the end of a love affair, a romance as dusty as an old LP. The first of possibly several revised editions, this production was perhaps a little rough around the edges, but boasts a promising future, supported by detailed performances and a coherent design.

Joe Faustine’s scenery and lights set the mood for this sultry theatrical jaunt. Soft yellows and pinks hazily illuminate a web of gauzy fabric delicately spotted with baby’s breath. The design is so effective because it rarely changes; romantic whimsy dominates the dancing couple’s highs and lows alike, evoking an eerie nightmare of a love perpetually trapped in the honeymoon phase. The ugliness of this slowly unravelling affair is left to the sound design, a bit of auditory genius uncredited in the show’s program. A sparse, muffled repetition of a sexy R&B tune sets the clock at late-night and leaves us there. Rather than indulge the timeworn cliche of breakup tears, the audio employs a wider and more realistic emotional palette. The small song sample undergoes all manner of distortions, leaving a cold, electronic sound that pulses with the foreignness of newly unpaired life and the terror of loneliness.

Tucked away in this diaphanous world, we meet Glenda [Carolyn Emery] and Griffin [Toussaint Jeanlouis], the two lovers, dancing a tender, simple phrase of choreography. Tableaux of the lovers dancing, flirting, and joking are woven together by quick, seamless, and often surprising physical transitions that have the delightful effect of skipping through a home video, fast-forwarding sections and pressing play on the favorite memories. Once completed, the tableaux are played through again, this time with a not-so-subtle hint of dissatisfaction among the lovers. I can’t help but share in their dissatisfaction as I predict how the piece will turn out: resentment will grow into an inevitable breakup, and we’ll be watching the same dance over and over again to boot. This is what happens, but, thankfully, it is much more compelling than I had imagined. The third time through the choreographic pattern, the dancers perform their same duet, this time with several feet of space between them. Rather than rely on the banal image of two lovers held apart by emotional distance, this team of artists takes the distance rather literally- with brilliant results. Lovers’ palms touching, now spatially separated, become a rigid symbol to “Stop!”. Where once Emery leapt into Jeanlouis’ arms, she now jumps towards him with a desperate grasp, an uncomfortably needy outburst. The final repetition of the choreography begins normally, seemingly a wishful memory sequence of good times gone. But suddenly, Jeanlouis’ head rolls out towards the audience, a mechanized grin frozen on his face, proving the memory to be nothing but a glitchy mental program, a futile attempt to recreate reality in the mind.

The choreography of Vinyl Love Affair shows a lot of promise, but feels at this point like a garment with no stitching. Transitions between repetitions of choreography consist of quasi-poetic monologues peppered with bits of overly specific, pedestrian language. The writing is largely unnecessary, a self-conscious filling-in of a beautifully abstracted relationship with quotidien details that would better suit a Netflix romantic drama. The actors seem to struggle with these pieces of text, but it is clear that the writing is merely difficult to perform. Emery and Jeanlouis are actually superb dance theatre performers who inject choreography with just the minimum amount of character. A subtly questioning look of dismay spreads across their faces with each change in the dance, with each small sign of the relationship’s downfall. Thus, despite the repetitive nature of the piece, the two are never boring to watch.

The piece of writing that says the most, and the only bit of text that this show needs, is the title. Together with the dreamy, fogginess of Faustine’s design, the words “Vinyl Love Affair” evoke a love that can only exist the memory space of old R+B records; a love that doesn’t hold up, doesn’t stand the test of time; a love as cheap as song lyrics. This superbly chintzy romance imagery is what this show has done wonderfully right. Keep your eyes out for Vinyl Love Affair in a revised edition this coming spring.

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*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.