It is rehearsal, several weeks before the dance company’s return to the Ace Hotel for its oft-packed On the Floor and it is time for new material. Dancers do half cartwheels through the studio floor, slow move with a disco ball, point a leg and shoot (as if their leg was a semi-automatic) and fly with a make-shift cape. They are focused, watching their characters in the mirror and seeing what sticks, and they are laughing, joking about how silly they look.
This new opening they’re trying to build, explains Dance Cartel founder and choreographer Ani Taj, who was surveying the scene, seeking nuggets for the show and rehearsing new moves herself, is a way to magnify the dancers’ own quirks. Days before she’d asked them to consider, “What’s the Power Ranger or superhero version of you inside the Dance Cartel? How does that assemble into this wacky team?”
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The Dance Cartel is eight dancers come together for a common goal: to make dance joyful for everyone involved (the viewers, themselves, even the tech people, says veteran Cartel member Alexandra Albrecht). The company was born in 2011 when Taj found herself frustrated with a sense of jubilation and humor missing in the dance world. Audience members didn’t “feel permission to respond with laughter or excitement,” she says.
Wanting to create a space where dance and the various responses to it were welcome, she held auditions, assembling a team of dancers from a variety of performance backgrounds and putting on their first show at BjorkBall in 2011. Ken Friedman, owner of the Breslin and responsible for booking events at the Ace’s basement venue, Liberty Hall, saw the show and felt it would be a good fit. On the Floor, crafted specifically for Liberty, premiered in June of 2012 and has been coming back regularly since.
Colorful and multifaceted, On the Floor weaves solo and group dances through audience members (Liberty has no stage, dancers are literally on the floor) and features moments of video, quiet song and artist collaborations. Music spans the gamut from pop to hip-hop to Brazilian and collaborators range from visual artists to comedians, the roster having included musical comedian Reggie Watts and electro-pop duo Cibo Matto. At the end of the night the DJ continues to spin and the Dance Cartel joins the crowd for a party.
“There is no barrier,” says Cibo Matto, who performed in the company’s final 2013 show. “It’s a celebration.”
The dancers have cast aside their superheroes and stand in two lines, relaxed and ready to rehearse new moves in unison. They vogue, framing their faces. They shuffle through the floor, their feet the only part that’s moving. They bounce. Taj is up front leading and watching. “Grosser,” she’ll say, “take a walk.”
Though iterations of the Cartel have changed, emphasis on variation in performance background remains. The company, like its premier show, is made of an eclectic mix. There are die-hard, lifelong dancers like the Cartel’s oldest member Albrecht and its newest member Sunny Hitt. nicHi douglas is a comedic actor and writer. Thomas Gibbons is a model. Each performer brings his or her own flavor with the variation, says Taj, offering another point of connection for attendees. It “creates a wider open door for the audience,” she says. “What I’m interested in creating is access points to dance for people.”
These access points are the dancers’ backgrounds, they are their different shapes and sizes, they are what Taj calls their “80s, torn up, futuristic” costumes, they are their makeup (“with Ani it’s always glitter,” says Albrecht), they are their array of musical influences and they are the various media the Cartel performs in. Last year saw them featured in Watts’ video “If You’re Fucking, You’re Fucking,” performing with the comedian live on Conan O’Brien, appearing in Yoko Ono’s video for “Bad Dancer” and dancing in festivals on both coasts.
Most recently, several members of the Cartel spent a few weeks in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, participating in the Silvestre Technique training intensive, a rigorous dance program offering classes in its specific technique, in ballet, Capoeira and movements stemming from the religion of Orixa. The Cartel held a residency in the Escola De Danca, performed in the Silvestre student showcase and generally soaked up Brazilian culture. “It’s always happening,” says Albrecht of dance in the country. For Taj, the place has always been hugely inspiring.
“Let’s hear the throwbacks,” she says as the company winds down from rehearsal. Several days before she’d asked them to bring in “throw backs” and “sing-alongs” for the show, moments where the audience could connect to music that struck a familiar chord. During previous On the Floor performances, when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” played, “I’ve seen the whole room just start singing it along,” she says.
The dancers sit in a circle by the stereo system, offering up their iPods and iPads. The first song played is Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be,” all thrilled by its familiarity. There is the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly”, Ginuwine’s “Pony” and Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You,” to which Justin Perez and Danika Manso-Brown improvise a duet, Perez kneeling on the floor (and slightly girating) as Manso-Brown signs the lyrics. Someone puts on Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” and the group deliberates whether or not the song is, in fact, stalker-y.
What’s really driven Taj over the past few years is a conversation she had with an artist friend’s father just before the Cartel was founded, his words echoing in her head.
“He’s a little bit more on the curmudgeon side of things,” she says of her friend’s father, who was skeptical about performance at large. She’d explained her frustrations with the dance world to him, saying that she wanted to make dance accessible for people. She wanted to make it have-able.
“Well,” said the curmudgeon, “I think the only way you can do that is to get them dancing.”
On the Floor takes place April 11 – 12 at Ace Hotel’s Liberty Hall. Doors at 8 p.m. Show at 9.