Of the many reasons to be excited about seeing OnTheFloor this weekend at Velocity Dance Center, the most basic is that you don’t have to worry about your ass falling asleep in a stiff theater seat. The show—which features guest appearances by local notables Amy O’Neal, Rainbow Fletcher’s Hypernova, and Seattle expat made good Reggie Watts, among others—is the latest creation of NYC-based company the Dance Cartel, whose work promises such a complicated mix of dance party, nightclub, and professional dance performance that it’s hard to explain exactly what the hell will be going on. The best bet is simply to get a ticket right now and go see for yourself, but allow me to provide a bit of context:
At times, OnTheFloor will invite the audience to watch a group, duo, or solo dancer perform on the dance floor. Sometimes there will be little tutorials, like the Backyard Wiggle (see below), which I have perfected in front of a flock of Wallingford chickens. And sometimes it’s just a big freaking dance party. Amy O’Neal, one of the local choreographers collaborating with the Dance Cartel at this weekend’s show, got chills the first time she went to a performance of OnTheFloor at New York’s Ace Hotel. “People were so stoked,” said O’Neal. “It looks like you’re hanging out in a club; you can choose when you want to move, but nobody can force you to do a fucking thing. Everybody’s got a drink in their hand, there’s an incredible energy.”
The Dance Cartel’s two-year run of OnTheFloor has gained a loyal following among New York dancers, clubbers, and theatergoers, but it’s difficult to find a single review that fully describes the experience. The unique combination of dance party and professional dance performance changes every night, due to the nature of the party vibe and the response and level of participation of the audience. Set up like a dance club, OnTheFloor has a bar, no theater seating, and the pumping loud music that inspires “at least a little bounce in the body,” as described by the Cartel’s founder, Ani Taj, who choreographs and performs in the show. OnTheFloor is broken up into moments of performance where the audience can mingle around the dancers, watch, sip on adult beverages, and talk about what they’re watching, and moments of pure dance-party chaos. But there’s also plenty of space for people who just want to wander and observe, and who don’t care to shake it all night long.
Taj’s choreography and director Sam Pinkleton’s careful use of space and cues make it very clear to audience members when it’s time to let loose and when it’s time to pay attention to the performers, says Taj. “We try to set the optimal conditions for people to feel welcome and be in a celebratory state. There are plenty of moments that are purely performative, but there’s an open invitation for the audience to enjoy dance the same way they’d enjoy a high-energy concert. They have the agency to claim part of the floor or to remain on the fringes. The word ‘participatory’ rings alarm bells, but our mission isn’t to put anyone on the spot.”
The Seattle incarnation of OnTheFloor raises the bar for the Dance Cartel’s collaborative mission, with the addition of local greats O’Neal and Hypernova—the new dance company from Can Can Castaways founder/dancer/choreographer Rainbow Fletcher—to say nothing of Reggie Watts, who has made a major national splash as a comedian and musician since leaving town a few years ago. All of these performers have reached beyond the traditional theater structures in an attempt to bring dance and performance to audiences who might not typically appreciate dance—and to those who may not feel comfortable beyond the classical/contemporary traditions. And although the Dance Cartel’s stated mission to “make dance affordable and accessible so that anyone can be a part of it” isn’t the first “accessibility” flag raised in performance culture, the Dance Cartel may be in a better position to pull it off than many of their forebears. They don’t shove anything foreign down audiences’ throats; the shows are simply designed to bridge the gap between centuries-old social dance culture and the beauty and sophistication of classical/contemporary dance performance.
Ani Taj started the Dance Cartel as a way to bring light to what she sees as an underrepresented art form, as compared to fashion and music, which have more practical applications to everyday life. “Dance is often perceived as this esoteric thing meant only for ballerinas and postmodern choreographers,” says Taj. “There’s such freedom in the ability to express things physically and be in tune with your own body. I want to share that sense of joy and physicality.” But will Seattle audiences respond to the invitation to participate in such an open, playful way?
“Culturally, the element of play isn’t something that’s expected of adults,” says flow artist Tony Richardson. (The flow arts incorporate dance with juggling and fire-spinning and often involve much more audience and crowd participation than traditional contemporary dance performances.) “The audience has to be set up and invited to play and participate.” While the setup for OnTheFloor encourages this kind of exchange, O’Neal describes the show as a more concentrated form of participation, rather than a completely new idea. “You choose how to participate when you see any kind of performance,” says O’Neal. “That’s the unwritten contract of a performance situation, but the open room and people standing around [at OnTheFloor] makes it feel more like a party. There’s a natural flow of events.”
Fletcher, who will perform with the Dance Cartel on Sunday, is excited to see how OnTheFloor will affect future collaborations between dance communities in Seattle, in addition to engaging audiences in new ways. “We have all these great little scenes of performing arts here, but we rarely see them put together in a cohesive way. [Taj’s] strategy is on a whole other level and could be the start of a cool set of relationships. It really depends on delivery and how the performers read the audience.”