Sidra Bell is more than a choreographer; she is a philosopher who thinks deeply about life and art. In addition to her MFA in choreography, she holds a degree in history from Yale, lectures at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was an adjunct professor at Barnard College. Her smarts come through in the dances she makes, but not in a traditional or predictable way.
Bell first worked with the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in 2009 for the newMoves festival. Since then she has been back several times, in various locations. Last week, she and her dancers rehearsed a brand new piece at the Alloy Studios that will premiere in the spring of 2014. To culminate the week-long residency, her performers showed the work-in-progress, “Garment,” on Friday.
The dance was mainly about identity, specifically how we shift identities. Audience seating was not only in the round, but a few chairs were situated right in the middle of the dance floor, to allow for more active viewing.
“The passivity of culture bothers me, and affects how I approach dance,” Bell says. The seating arrangement worked to fit her goal. The five dancers weaved in and around the chairs, approaching the audience directly, breaking our perceived personal space, and sometimes even touching us. “Touch is a strange phenomenon in our society,” she says, admitting that she considers dance making a place to break rules and “misbehave.”
Lucky for the company, our Pittsburgh dance community was up for it. One woman watched intently as a dancer crawled onto the empty chair next to her. Another seemed totally at ease when a dancer sat in her lap.
Most of the thirty-minute piece was that up close and personal. Much of it was a whirlwind of frenetic solo movement. And although there is truth in the saying, “everything in art has already been done,” there were some truly unique moments.
Dancer and Associate Artist Director of the company, Alexandra Johnson, had a wild solo that half resembled krumping with her free, hard-hitting and uninhibited style. Slower partnering phrases seemed to happen accidentally, the dancers molding into each other.
At one point, the performers manipulated one another in slow, hypnotic waves, adjusting body parts, clothing and even hair. Because there was so much to see, in every part of the studio (Bell likes to “split focus”), the one unison phrase was deeply satisfying.
It will be fascinating to see how the piece changes and grows from now until next spring. As always, the dance community will welcome Sidra Bell Dance New York back to Pittsburgh with an eager and open mind.