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A choreographer finds his way, getting lost in the stars
Bree Breeden during the filming of “Stellar” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, March 26, 2021. This month, two new dances by Kyle Marshall — one a film, the other live — will have their premieres. Douglas Segars/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Kyle Marshall’s pandemic year was all about change. He turned 30. He moved into his own apartment. He now depends on his dance company, which he formed in 2014, for his livelihood. And he’s working with new dancers, a major shift for a choreographer whose works were populated by close friends and roommates — fellow graduates from Rutgers University.

“That transition felt like a lot, but it also felt absolutely necessary because it brings new ideas forward,” he said in an interview. “It keeps me accountable to how I want my ideas to come across. I have to communicate in a different way. I have to work with less expectation, and I think that’s really healthy.”

In this next step of his career, he said, he’s more focused and more comfortable making decisions. But the pandemic made also him realize something else: just how exhausted he was. Before the shutdown, in December 2019, his company performed two works exploring Blackness at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“It took a toll on me,” Marshall said. “One thing that came out of COVID that I was grateful for was just the time to rest.”

“I wish I was better prepared,” he said of dealing with the stress of his dancing life, which includes teaching and being a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. He added, “I wish I was in therapy sooner.”

The experiences of the past year have shifted both his work and the way he works. During the pandemic, Marshall started to embrace improvisation; he also found himself drawn to jazz, which led him to think about the role improvisation plays in Black art.

“I also thought improvisation would be a helpful way for performers to get back into material after not being onstage for so long,” he said. “I was in such a place of improvisation that it didn’t feel quite right for me to start dictating to people what to do with their bodies.”

This month, two new dances — one a film, the other live — will have their premieres. “Stellar,” a trippy piece inspired by Afrofuturism, jazz and science fiction, is a digital work for the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan, available for two weeks starting June 7. The other dance, “Rise,” is a celebration of club music that will be performed live at the Shed, also in Manhattan, on June 25 and 26.

In each, there is a sense of elation, of wonder. “‘Stellar’ was thinking about something that was sci-fi and still rooted in Black culture and Black art-making, but stemming from other things besides just pain,” he said. “There’s more that I want to explore and more that I want to sit in to make work.”

For “Stellar” Marshall conjures a universe, meditative and otherworldly, in which three dancers, Bree Breeden, Ariana Speight and Marshall himself, move to a dreamy score by Kwami Winfield, featuring the cornet, bits of metal, a hand drum and a tambourine. The dancers, in painted and dyed sweatsuits designed by Malcolm-x Betts, practically glow, lending a sense of mysticism to the darkened stage, where Marshall’s circular patterns and revolving bodies seem to regenerate the space over time. There’s a weightlessness to them; at times, they seem like particles.

“Stellar” unfolds in five sections, each a different grouping or exploration.

“The first opening, as we call it, is ‘expansion,’” Marshall said. “I was trying to create a body that was floating.”

The work has a ritualistic quality, which owes much to the music. Before he started working with the dancers, Marshall spent time figuring out the structure and the concept with Winfield. Sun Ra, the avant-garde musician with a passion for outer space, was a big influence.

“Sun Ra represents an alternate vision of the future — the potential to be more than what we’re born into as humans and specifically Black people in America,” Winfield said. “Sun Ra is sort of in between traditionalism in jazz and expanding it outward into noise. And something that Kyle and I talked about specifically was the way Sun Ra treats his keyboard like the controls of a spaceship.”

Marshall was also inspired by other jazz artists, including John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane and Albert Ayler. The sound that they produced felt out there to him — in a good way. And it also came as a surprise: His knowledge of experimental music was linked to composer John Cage. But “these people were also working on breaking down boundaries of sound, creating distortion, creating noise, working in dissonance,” Marshall said. “That was not a part of my education, and I found it very empowering: Here are Black artists working in a very radical way.”

It led to him to consider his own improvisational practice as he tried to explore new ways of moving. The transcendence of Alice Coltrane’s music was particularly meaningful.

“It’s just not playing to perform,” Marshall said. “It feels like she’s pulling something out of her. It felt like it held me and kept me feeling that I can access that for myself.”

And as Winfield — a former roommate of Marshall’s — worked on the piece, he also participated in the dancers’ warmup. That gave him, he said, “a holistic understanding of my role in reference to everyone else — just knowing the energy and focus required to maintain connections to the material, time and each other in space.”

“Stellar,” which the dancers hope to perform live in the future, creates a world where even the makeup (by Edo Tastic) is a space for Marshall to explore Afrofuturism: “I thought it added a little royalty to it,” he said.

But nailing the right makeup — or anything related to the look of a dance — doesn’t come naturally to him.

“I’m a very, like, structural, embodied person,” he said. “Everyone asks me: ‘What about hair? What am I doing with my hair?’ And I’m like: ‘Don’t. I don’t know.’ Hair and makeup and costumes don’t come last, but they’re not my strengths. I’m trying to embrace that a little bit more and to get more people involved and see how it can inform the work.”

The music for “Rise,” his first live group piece since the pandemic, is composed and performed by Cal Fish, and inspired by house music.

The feeling Marshall is going for? “It’s what you get both in the church and the club — that kind of opening and uplift,” he said.

“I’m thinking about uplift as both an energetic feeling, but also a choreographic idea that the work ascends: It goes from a low place to a high place. Leaning into that expectation is something I’ve never indulged in choreographically.”

Again, it’s all about change. “Creating something that actually feels joyful,” he said with a smile.

It might seem odd, but Marshall’s embrace of joy is in response to the death of George Floyd and his aversion, he said, to displaying more pain.

“A lot of my work was thinking about trauma and either displaying it or showing it,” he said. “I just think that cycle is toxic. I think about displaying Black violence: What does that do for the viewer?”

And what, he wonders, do we need coming out of this time?

“I need a bit more space in my life, a bit more dreaming,” he said. “More affirmation and positivity. I just don’t think that right now for me is the time to sit in my trauma. I need more joy in my life.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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