Review: In this dance, even the nose scratches are choreographed
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Review: In this dance, even the nose scratches are choreographed
Kennedy Thomas, center, and Mia Martelli, left, performing in Jordan Demetrius Lloyd’s “Blackbare in the Basement” at Danspace Project in New York, on March 7, 2023. Lloyd’s first evening-length commission shows a distinct voice still developing. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- Two men in lavender puffer vests and jean shorts strike a pose. Together, they scratch their noses. And then they go right back to the pose.

This happens in the opening duet of Jordan Demetrius Lloyd’s “Blackbare in the Basement,” which had its debut at Danspace Project on Thursday. Lloyd is a young choreographer who made a splash last year staging a performance in a schoolyard near his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “Blackbare,” his first evening-length commission, extends the impression of a distinct voice still developing. All three shows are sold out.

That moment in the duet is indicative of the 50-minute work’s attention to detail and destabilizing use of form. The nose scratching is casual, seemingly a break in form, but since the two men do it in unison, the doubled gesture is as choreographed, as formal, as the pose.

Much else in this duet — for Lloyd and Owen Prum — is foundational. It has a stop-and-start rhythm of quick-freeze balletic poses and long pauses set against bursts of larger movements and loud footfalls. The rhythm and tone call to mind a military exercise, but something is off, disorienting. The men keep looking around, and up.

The tension is largely maintained as six other dancers arrive. Moving independently or snapping into paired motion before dispersing, they keep the space alive with disparate but simultaneous action and a flexible shape that extends from the floor of St. Mark’s Church into the balcony. A couple dozen clementines, spilled from a paper bag, increase the tension as obstacles.

The dancers look around, and up. They scratch themselves in paired unison. In a duet, Wendell Gray II and the elegant standout Mykel Marai Nairne both drop into almost-full splits, their pelvises freezing a few inches above the ground. That’s emblematic; there’s a lot of “almost” in this dance, much of it engaging in its exactitude while unsettling in its incompletion.

The feeling of unease also comes from the sound score: glitchy, staticky electronic tracks arranged by Lloyd to cut in and out. One selection includes field recordings of a kendo dojo, call-and-response shouting muffled in synthesizer clouds; most suggest something disturbing, half-audible in the next room. This combines with the dancers’ stomping, clapping and occasional screaming for an effect approaching jump scares in a horror film or a carnival haunted house.

After the church bells chime and nearly all the lights go out (sure design by veteran Kathy Kaufman), Lloyd and Prum return dramatically through the front doors to continue their duet. It’s more almost-ness. They graze uncomfortably close to each other, crossing paths, briefly touching or rolling as one but then backing off and apart, attracted and repulsed.

The rest of the group also returns, to the promising sound of the show’s one real song: Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny.” But that song’s driving uplift (“The dark days are done” of the lyrics, the smile easing the pain) doesn’t take, and everyone sinks to the ground.

As for Lloyd and Prum, they peel off each other’s underwear, their bodies inverted in an exquisitely sculptural position. Yet Lloyd ends up alone, posing naked in front of a stained-glass window and sinking, too. All this almost-ness, while successfully unnerving, is a little unsatisfying in the aggregate, stopping short of pushing through. But however this piece ends, as a choreographer, Lloyd is only at the start. It’s a good one.

Jordan Demetrius Lloyd

Through Saturday at Danspace Project;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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