Four nude dancers stand in a diamond formation on the stage, gluteal muscles casting small dark shadows onto dimpled hips as they sway from side to side. Coarse white linen robes—cast off seconds before, with almost imperceptible motions—lie crumpled at their feet. The stage is entirely white and everything is silent. The swaying lasts for what seems like 10 minutes, and I'm staring at bare ass the whole time—ass belonging to artists I've talked to, written about, laughed with—and I'm a little uncomfortable. Tahni Holt's Duet Love is supposed to shake up our notions and perceptions of male and female bodies. It works; I'm shaken, and not just because of the naked butts. Duet Love's few ingredients—exacting movements, simple costuming, white set, minimal music, two spotlights operated by the dancers themselves—create an audience response that is raw, direct, and impossible to avoid.
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At the beginning of the piece, before we get to revel in the perfect musculature of unclothed professional dancers, all four cast members stand abreast, facing the audience with the typical modern-dance face: blank but with a hint of aloofness. Two women and two men are dressed in black and white, posed like runway models. They strike different poses every few seconds while the silence is punctuated with synthesized pops—an electronic version of the sound made by old camera flashes. Separating into male/female duos, the dancers move around each other in small, calculated movements that build into sweeping exchanges of weight: an arm thrust into the small of the back, causing the dancer to lurch forward and then fall back on her partner. Keyon Gaskin and Lucy Yim eye each other from opposite corners, while Ezra Dickinson and Allie Hankins manipulate two wheeled spotlights into huge, dramatic shadows that bounce off the dancers' bodies and onto the walls. The couples play back and forth, creating a dreamlike and almost erotic mood, tossing each other's weight around, rolling on the floor or tussling upright. Several times, it feels like watching foreplay.
Duet Love's intended inquiry, according to press materials, is: "How does audience desire inflect the experience of masculine/feminine into the movement and emotion of dancing bodies?" But Duet Love surpasses this question, making a powerful inquest into the human form's ability to create an intense emotional response. While your exact experience of Duet Love cannot help but reflect your ideas about gender, Holt's choreography forces you to consider the human body in all its moods, identities, proclivities, and states of undress.
Duet Love is divided into three sections, mainly through costume changes. The middle section, where the dancers wear nothing, is by far the most provocative for obvious reasons, but the provocation stems from the absolute absence of attention paid to the nudity. The movements performed in the nude are largely similar to those performed by the dancers when they're clothed; if Holt meant to change the meaning of the movements by virtue of the nakedness, then why isn't the choreography more gendered, more coupled than it is? An Astaire/Rogers duet performed nude would make a loud statement about how clothing and choreography gender a dancer's performance, but Holt's art is more spiritually nuanced than gendered. Each dancer moves as if they are powered by the natural movements of muscles and bones, responses to sound, and a silent inner monologue. It may be argued that these things are inherently gendered, but this piece doesn't rely on that as a primary part of the narrative—and it is a more interesting, more nuanced work because of it.
And that's what frequently happens when choreographers develop a piece along with the dancers and artists who will perform it: The artists' individuality and interactions during the process drive the creativity, rather than the preconceived idea that may be issued during a press release. Although Holt developed Duet Love during a creative residency at Velocity Dance Center, the piece wasn't fully realized until very recently. As of two weeks ago, the ending wasn't set and the costumes were being worn—and not worn—for the very first time.