Around 7:30pm, the stage went dark but sunlight crept in from high windows in the Salt Lake Arts Academy, illuminating four dancers – Alexandra Bradshaw Yerby, Efren Corado Garcia, Eileen Rojas, and Bashaun Williams – walking in a line from the stage-right audience area to the stage. Upon their arrival, the stage lights turned on to cue “Line up”, the first section of Karin Fenn’s new evening-length work, Under Your Skin.
“Line up” can imply imminent inspection – I’ve lined up in school settings to have uniforms scrutinized and in dance rehearsals to have costumes assessed. There are obviously darker reasons to line up and types of evaluations in which the stakes are higher if one doesn’t pass. In the “line up” in Under Your Skin, we were presented with external aspects of the dancers’ identities – their physical appearance. They faced the audience and looked out vacantly as if they were there to be gazed upon rather than gaze at us.
The line began to shift - three stepped back as one stepped forward, one would turn to show their profile while two turned around and the other faced the opposite profile direction. These shifts grew from perfunctory, mug-shot movements to more aggressive actions of self-exposure, domination, or self-defense: Bradshaw Yerby clutched her chest and crotch area while Williams lay on his side and pointed at his; Rojas lay face down while Corado Garcia turned around. These poses were delivered in rapid fire, the dancers going from lying down to standing upright in milliseconds, reflecting shifting roles within one person in relation to other people.
“Line up” exploded into a combative quartet, moving around the room, building in intensity through momentous spinning lifts and phrases that sped up with each repetition. The intensity of the movement almost exceeded that of the fast-paced industrial music that sounded like the soundtrack of a fight montage in a movie on low volume. In fact, the music throughout the piece seemed to reflect the emotive and conceptual qualities of the choreography rather than augment them; the dance already spoke very clearly for itself, reducing the music to a redundant side-kick role.
However, in the work’s titular section there was no heavy-handed music. The dancers created the sound score by telling anecdotes while inspecting each other as if for fleas and slowly taking off their own clothes in a practical manner. The only statement that I could discern from the delightful cacophony of voices was when Williams said “What, you think I can’t be Santa Claus because I’m black?” That statement echoed in my mind while watching Williams move alone in the next section.
This performance was an exceptionally personal one; Williams moved with grace and honesty, holding his wrists in a constraining way, then spinning into a jump, all demonstrating a beautiful ability to break free of what constrains him. The release of his twirling jumps would not have been so if he had not held his own wrists first – these oppositional movements created a meaningful contrast.
Eventually, the other three dancers joined Williams by crawling onstage, becoming platforms for him to give his weight to as he rose after falling to the ground. All four danced together for a section, but then Williams was left alone again to reprise his solo. This pattern of solo, ensemble, then solo gave depth to Williams’ narrative – the first solo foreshadowed the second and the movement in the second solo referenced the movement in the first.
Bradshaw Yerby, Corado Garcia, and Rojas also performed very poignant solos throughout the evening. Bradshaw Yerby’s was primarily contained within three translucent walls that divided the stage in various ways throughout the piece. These plastic barriers obscured the dancers from the audience and each other, creating a satisfying symbol for skin.
At one point Bradshaw Yerby and Rojas crouched behind a plastic wall while Corado Garcia and Williams did a dance-fight. When the fight was over the women approached each male separately, touching “their man” tenderly as if checking to see if he was injured. Similar gender roles were played out again when the dancers paired off in male-female duets, doing slow dances while touching each other seductively and trading partners, carefully keeping the duets in the standard, heteronormative realm.
These gender divisions rendered the scenes into pantomimes of animosity and love rather than genuine expressions thereof – they seemed forced. Really, anyone can tend to another’s wounds; people share intimacy with more than those of the opposite gender. It was as if the plastic walls were dividing the “boys” and the “girls”, but we couldn’t see them. I wondered whether the separate choreography for males and females was intended as a commentary on popularly perceived gender “differences” (i.e. the idea that men are always one way and women always another way – that there are two “gender teams”) or if the choreography was representing these “teams” arbitrarily.
Under Your Skin ended the way it began, but slower. The dancers’ eyes were more active and open compared to their vacant stares in the initial “mug-shot” scene. The movement was no longer performed as a series of poses, but as a full phrase with transitions that took longer than a few milliseconds. Bradshaw Yerby repeated the movement she did during her previous solo within the plastic walls, but this time the walls were not obscuring – her movement was out in the open, transparent.
To finish, the dancers exited intermittently, depending on when their individual movement phrases ended - they were acting autonomously, yet following a collective pattern. I felt satisfied to have seen such a varied collection of physical studies exploring skin. I saw skin as a barrier, as a means of connecting, as a betrayer, a protector, a record of the past, and as ever-evolving. The studies were woven together like episodes whose characters return to where they started out but in a new skin, both changed and still actively changing.
Emma Wilson is the Dance/Performance Art Curator at Vague Space, a non-profit arts venue, and the new Community Garden Coordinator for the Salt Lake City Library. She also puts a BFA in modern dance (U of U ‘15) to use making and performing freelance dances.