There was not a person leaving New York Live Arts last Thursday night without a smile on his or her face. Though some grins were accompanied by a confused tilt of the head, turning to their friends to say,”Will there be an encore?”
This was a concert where the musicians of the band People Get Ready were also their own dancers. Or was it a dance show where the dancers chose to alternate choreography with singing and playing a myriad of instruments (from the floor to a Cagean-inspired prepared guitar for the body)? Either way this multidisciplinary triumph was the source of the questioning clapping at the end of the show; do you applaud nicely for the bows and go in peace, or does the audience stay and shout? I hope by Saturday night, the last of three shows of Specific Ocean, the audience figured out how to ask for what they wanted: just one more song and dance.
The show began with members entering one by one to form an a capella chorus that bled into a sweet but forgettable tune. There was a feeling of communal warmth as members kneeled in front of their equipment, flanking a stage that generated its own graphic interest, the panels of floor taped in a perpendicular brick pattern. The intro flowed into a sweet, sedate trio with Jen Goma, a partner, and a microphone handler which only served to bring up how much further the concept could be taken. In fact, the most transcendent sections of Specific Ocean were not when the group shimmied to the anthemic beat but rather when sonic landscapes were unearthed from their movement. Director, choreographer, and lead songwriter Steven Reker mines this terrain with the incredible skill befitting his impressive resume, having worked with the David Byrne and Robert Wilson.
For me, the piece really began when Reker and Luke Fasano untaped and picked up two pieces of the floor–presumably made of some sort of corrugated cardboard–and began to engage the ground in a conversation. Using their arms as levers and their bodies as counterweights and thrusts, a rippling sound floated up and reverberated around the stage; given greater depth by the synths on the sidelines. I alternated between a vicarious feeling of joy, much like watching children discover a refrigerator box, and hopeful anxiety as their dreams seemed perched on the edge of an extremely large playing card. The resulting sounds echoed the mood swings of the well-balanced mix tape, which is a motivating influence for Reker.
Not to be outdone, Aaron Mattocks brought the piece to a climax with his solo for prepared guitar. Slung over his shoulder to start, he began moving in adagio, slowly experimenting with resonating tones as he took arabesques and lunges. As he picked up the pace, the guitar reflected his growing carelessness and abandon. The guitar never got him down, though he lead the guitar into some impressive floor work. By the end of the battle, his freedom within literally rang out loudly, if not so clearly. People Get Ready treat every instrument and prop in their environment as if it is a theremin, seeming to move from the principle that the body should determine the frequency.
Though it did not reference this in the extensive Context Notes I was given, People Get Ready is also the name of a 1965 hit song, composed by Curtis Mayfield. An influential gospel-inspired track, the social consciousness of the song seems to be very obviously at the root of what this group of artists led by Reker aims to do. “You don’t need no baggage, just get on board,” Mr. Mayfield sings. After experiencing this performance, I can imagine the group adding to the line, “And if you do have baggage, just pick it up, or sling it around your back, and dance to its rhythm.”
In the pre-show talk, Past and Present – Indie Music & Contemporary Dance With Michael Azerrad (music writer and scholar) and Matt Mehlan (musician and production manager), Azerrad made sure to point out how there has been a definite lack of dance in the history of the indie music scene, on the stage and in the house. On the classical side of the fence, as the world continues to spin and culture recycles, musicians and dancers have increasingly found their art forms at a precipice, pushed there by specialized techniques that have made giant strides in virtuosity and technology. The question of how to move forward from here is the baggage many choreographers and composers carry around and many audiences suffer. Not only are People Get Ready eschewing the self-conscious model potentially responsible for the lack in indie music, but they are also pushing on the often stale boundaries of classical music and contemporary dance. Their attempt to lighten our load through performance art is a welcome step forward, hands clasped, arms swinging.