PAGEANT Presents: Duet Night

It was a Friday night in New York, I was looking for something to do. I scrolled through my Instagram to see if anyone I know was doing anything of interest I could try to write about. I remembered my friend, Noa, had plugged his performance to the dance class we both take. Class always starts with a circle, where we have the opportunity to make announcements or share events. It’s the kind of dance class where we begin with circle time, then thrash madly on the floor and then practice falling into each other’s arms.

I contacted Noa for the details and his words were cryptic but intriguing “[It’s] up this unmarked set of stairs, 3 floor walk up”

Anything “clandestine” or “underground” is extremely my vibe so I’m there. The performance is at “Pageant,” a new dance studio and performance space that opened in Brooklyn earlier this year. The door ended up being not difficult to find. Inside the feel of the room is less theatrical, more domestic. It’s the top floor of an apartment building, totally open so it’s kind of like a loft, and there’s a little kitchen (aka concession area), and a bathroom. The room is filled with young beautiful people. They look like dancers, graceful and comfortable in their bodies. Mingling occurs and then the show is starting. Someone connects to the speakers from their laptop and the dancers walk out from behind the audience. Thus begins the first of the night’s duets

The first dancers, Angelina Hoffman and Fiona Spiegler, sit on the floor draped against each other. They are languid, moving within their own world, and remain detached from the onlookers. The bright lights are close enough to reflect off the blue eyes of both girls and I am reminded of movie star glamour, celestial bodies. Moving around each other in circles, they repeat each other’s gestures like a wheel in the space time continuum.

The second piece is titled “We Don’t Own the Rights to Any of This,” choreographed and performed by Miranda Brown and Noa Rui-Pinn Weiss. Watching this duet, my first impression is that it’s not unlike scrolling through TikTok. The dancers are performing familiar moves but splicing and mutating them. Miranda starts a dance — I recognize the choreography but can’t place it. The pattern is picked up by Noa and repeated. There is a call and response, cause and effect churning to their duet. Seconds later Jingle Bell Rock is playing. Suddenly everything makes sense, they’re doing the dance Regina et al performed at the talent show Santa in Mean Girls.

The music stops, the dancers continue unphased. They walk to the wall —swipe. The soundtrack is a mashup of songs that have the word “dance” somewhere in the title or lyrics or general theme. The same chorus or verse pops up again and again, each reduced to a half life. The music bounces algorithmically from one track to another. The way it is cut together feels like swiping away from a TikTok before the sound finishes. Instant replacement with a new sound. Noa and Miranda respond to the music queues, but also ignore them. Their dance is almost a direct response to the sounds, they follow associations that arise in their bodies at this song, this song. The duet asks what is pre programmed into movement from viral online content.

Pause — eyes scan up and down — new character. Every moment the dancers are embodying the caricature of the music, the pop synth plus heavy bass, endless party, doom scroll trance. The phrasing and looping of “We Don’t Own The Rights To Any Of This” embodies this internet logic — nothing is “original” or expressive” but each action is automatic repetition of, and at the same time variation on, something previously dispersed and received.

A duet, in dance, is basically a way of communicating through two bodies. In contrast to “We Don’t Own The Rights to Any of This,” the first piece doesn’t require any previous exposure to the Internet to understand. Both duets depend on repetition and looping to generate their structure. In piece 1, the dancers move to a soundtrack that would have “but you’re crying in the bathroom of the club” in the title on YouTube. The two girls mimic each other’s movements, forming a jilted waltz that spirals around the room. Rather than pulling choreography from the deep recess of the web, they generate the dance right there. Replicating, recalling, and responding to each other, their dance doesn’t obscure a further meaning linked to another source. It just is what it is, and then it was over.

In “We Don’t Own The Rights to Any of This,” the bodies communicate by embodying references to the internet. Their bodies hyperlink to memes and sound bites — reducing the irreducible complexity of feeling into something others can recognize, and understand and respond to. Rather than expressing a system of universally (or at least, dialectically) understandable symbols by making noise with the mouth, the two dancers communicate by letting their bodies watch, think, and react. The dance is a silent conversation. 

At times their movements are robotic, stiff, and angular, like acting out instructions for a TikTok dance. The dance moves more efficiently than words because it is distilled to something more essential. Thus they are able to respond to each other almost in the same moment and move correspondingly. Copying content makes the performance instantly accessible-–the viewer’s perspective is grounded in a more famous, recognizable, relevant moment. Like the Mean Girls example, I sense the movements are familiar as soon as I see them. The first duet feels more abstract because it doesn’t use such familiar forms.

Memes come and go but their mark has been made on our cultural heritage. “We Don’t Own the Rights to Any of This” is inspired by a niche meme that even I wasn’t familiar with (I am Very Online). A gif of Spiderman dancing — it works to whatever music you play. The avatar is programmed to keep dancing, keep vibing. The dancers are performing memes like hieroglyphics. I like to think of them trying to learn the Spiderman dance from the video. Slowing it down to 0.5 speed.. mirroring the movements.. reversing them because it’s not a mirror it’s a screen… It’s an experience I can relate to. I recall when my cousin, sisters, and I learned the Just Dance “Rasputin” choreography and performed it for our parents; or when my freshman year roommate and I learned that same Mean Girls jingle bell rock choreography during our first week of college finals.

The performance is at once easy to “get” — as declared in the title, none of the moves are original by any means. It is reference upon reference, a physical montage of different contents and media. For us, the dancers translate a shared archive into movement. But at the same time, it’s totally opaque for anyone who’s not online. The performance points to the universal experience of copying from a screen, and trends disseminating virtually that get lodged in the body.

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