Dance review

Sidra Bell dancers explore clothes, identity in new work

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Putting on clothes is a way of putting on an identity.

This premise pulsed throughout choreographer Sidra Bell's new work "garment," which her company, Sidra Bell Dance New York, premiered this weekend at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, East Liberty.

Under the direction of Janera Solomon, the Kelly-Strayhorn has made dance theater works that confront audiences with contemporary issues, be it race, stereotypes or relationships, a niche of sorts for its yearly KST Presents series. "garment" grew out of a residency Ms. Bell had at the theater's Alloy Studios where she asked audiences to share their thoughts on identity. These responses helped to shape the episodes, or vignettes, of "garment" created to be abstractly felt rather than narratively understood.

In the lobby, a male dancer in nude tights and tank with chest exposed set the tone for the show. He repetitively swayed his hips to and fro with his hands effeminately upon his head as the lyrics "I am a very stylish girl" played on a loop.

This gender bending continued throughout the evening, set up in two parts: "The Body Politic" and "new demon." Five dancers (two women, three men) rebelled against mannerisms and dress typically considered societal norms for each gender. Women wore relaxed-fit pants, bra tops and blazers with hair pulled severely back, while the men dressed like the one in the lobby before slipping into short flesh-toned slip-style dresses and black buckled character shoes.

A collage of sounds compiled by Ms. Bell spanned from street and classical music to spoken word, bringing with them different vibes and thoughts about what makes people look and act like they do. At times, dancers mimicked each other, a kind of commentary on the see-and-repeat nature of how trends, behaviors and gender expectations are taught and become entrenched in society. At another point, dancers took turns moving another's limbs, making them flick their legs or rub their stomachs. It looked ridiculous, but they kept letting others influence them. (Do we let the same happen to our behaviors?)

Parts of it felt familiar, like something that's been attempted before. (For instance, Kyle Abraham's "Live! The Realest MC" dissected a similar idea about what it means to be "a real boy.") But Ms. Bell distinguished her voice in the conversation with the focus on clothing and identity. Dancers hurled piles of them and buried a woman beneath a mound of apparel. ("I can't see myself," she recited over and over.) She tried to get dressed, turning shirts into pants, hanging a bra around her neck and struggling to make it all stay, prompting the quandary: Do we pick how we dress (and act) or do clothes wear (and control) us?

Sticking with neutrals for costuming was wise -- and most poignant when dancers moved in unison. When bathed in shadowy light it was tougher to tell who was a man and who was a woman, and it didn't matter. It was about strong, beautiful bodies.

In "new demon," dancers appeared in white cap-sleeve leotards. A man and woman peeled theirs off, presenting the garments before them as if a sacrifice. The woman still dressed convulsed maddeningly. One man lifted up another and let him slam into the floor. It was haunting.

And then everything went black.

Sara Bauknecht: or on Twitter @SaraB_PG.

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