Rashaun Mitchell’s “Light Years” at New York Live Arts
Rashaun Mitchell’s latest work, Light Years, is a sort of wordless play that dabbles in mythical archetypes, fashion, and full-bodied physicality. The piece, a quartet for dancers Silas Riener, Cory Kresge, Melissa Toogood, and Hiroki Ichinose, premiered at New York Live Arts last Wednesday night. With ethereal lighting by Davison Scandrett and a pulsing electronic score by Michael Beharie and Corwin Lamm, it is a highly stylized series of vignettes, a celestial odyssey that follows the exploits of a mortal prince, a magical fish, a cloud-dwelling fairy, and a jungle creature.
The most striking part of the work came at the very beginning. Entering in darkness and clad only in a woven loincloth, Riener walked determinedly around the perimeter of a spotlight at center stage. As his laps accumulated, he executed a series of peculiar movements: a jutting forward of the head, a sideways dislocation of the rib cage, an arm gravitating toward the center as if pulled in by a magnet. He was at once un-dancerly and fastidiously expert, his body distorting repeatedly while he maintained a measured gait and an even gaze. When Riener returned to the stage to dance an energetic duet with Toogood later on, he had switched his buttocks-bearing number for shorts and a top in the style of a Grecian warrior. Hair now pulled back at the nape of his neck, he had transformed from god to mortal, from leading to supporting actor.
Unfolding over the course of nearly an hour, the piece offered a progression of solos, duets, and group sections exploring shifting dynamics between the dancers. Antagonistic at times and collaborative at others, their interactions took place in an imaginative world of Mitchell’s creation, enhanced by costumes that seemed to have come from some posh adult’s dress-up box. All four performers navigated the stage with aplomb and technical prowess, and Mitchell seemed to draw inspiration from their personalities to give the work its texture. Yet the task of character development in Light Years was at times heavy-handed and seemed to distract Mitchell from fully investing in movement as a vehicle for communication.
These stilted moments of role-playing were tempered by genuinely beautiful and delightfully bizarre passages featuring single dancers. A solo danced by Kresge mid-piece was a continuous loop of precarious suspensions and falls across a stage flecked with stars. Dressed in a gauzy tunic with her hair flowing, she was a paint-smeared sprite, delicate yet poised. Earlier in the work, Ichinose, in a spectacular entrance, had oozed across the stage like mercury. His skin-tight metallic suit and matching bejeweled hood evoked both astronaut and knight in chainmail, but to me, he was a deep-sea diver. These moments were too far between, however, in a work that felt dramatically overwrought and superficial in its use of space and movement.
At various points during the piece, it seemed as if the dancers had been asked to embody the four elements: Toogood was fire with her spiky hair and explosive, animal-like stomps; Riener earth in his woven brown garment and his grounded stride; Kresge was wind as she skittered airily across the space; and Ichinose’s fluid suspensions could only be that of water. While I appreciated the visual appeal of these characters and the playful dynamics between them, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the work relied on costumes and simplistic archetypes for its raison d’être.
Perhaps Mitchell was trying to synthesize the energies of his four performers to achieve the Buddhist fifth element: sky or heaven. But for me, the piece’s half-hearted commitment to the spatial and energetic properties of dance prevented it from arriving at a place of otherworldliness. This fifth element is alternately translated into English as “void,” and as the hour-long performance drew to a close, I was left feeling empty, wishing that Mitchell’s science fiction had had more faith in the possibilities of its medium.