DanceNew York

Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes– BAM, New York City

Choreographer: Shamel Pitts

Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell

Dancer and Choreographer Shamel Pitts is proud of his Brooklyn roots. In press materials and interviews, he talks about his youth in Brooklyn and the role that the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s programming played in shaping his own work. It’s fitting, then, that he returned to Brooklyn during Mother’s Day weekend to perform Black Velvet: Architectures and Archetypes, at BAM’s Fishman Space. Black Velvet is a dance duet that Pitts created and performed with Brazilian dancer and performance artist Mirelle Martins; it features extensive light and video mapping by Lucca Del Carlo.

As the audience files into the theatre, their first sight is a bare-chested woman (Mirelle Martins) atop a ladder. A large piece of fabric covers the ladder but also serves as a skirt. In silence, she holds her arms as if she is cradling a child. This continues when the lights dim and the music starts, but soon a slow progression of movements brings her down from the ladder, where she meets a man (Shamel Pitts). Shimmering with gold body paint and wearing only loincloths, the dancers move first alongside one another and then closer and closer together until they move as a single unit. They return to the ladder, climbing it at first, then spinning it, and finally toppling it before moving into a series of brief tableaus that recall love and family.

One of the most interesting things about Black Velvet is the way that so much of the movement carries multiple meanings. In a program note, Pitts says that the piece is about “the efficiency of strangers to become partners.” The term partner can have many meanings— a business partner, an artistic collaborator, a love interest, a person with whom we share a life. When Martins and Pitts stand next to one another pumping their arms as if they are running, there’s the sense that they are partners in escape. When they take turns breathing into one another’s faces, there’s a sense of sharing breath, but when it speeds up, the sound is distinctly sexual. A moment that echoes sexual release quickly shifts into a moment of comforting someone torn apart by grief. The toppling of the ladder feels at once like toppling a hierarchy and building a home.

Pitts also commented that working with Martins brought a “deeply formative and personal theme of Black womanhood” to the piece. Multiple times throughout Black Velvet Martins holds her arms as if she is cradling a child. Sometimes she reaches up to pat her shoulder as if she’s comforting a child. At one point, she gently transfers her armload to Pitts, as though she’s handing him the child. While motherhood doesn’t define the theme of Black womanhood, it’s a moving component of it.

Tech elements are strong and distinctive. Lucca Del Carlo’s light and video mapping add layers to the emotional impact of the piece especially in the more frantic portions of the dance. Sound designer Ed Côrtes does a fine job of creating a musical landscape that makes the audience uncomfortable; just when you think you can’t take another moment of ear-splitting industrial music, there’s complete silence– a silence far more profound than if the music had been at a comfortable level. All in all, Black Velvet is a rich and complex work. Because there’s a fair amount of repetitive movement, it’s easy to let one’s mind drift, but not for long. The repetition will shift into something with a whole new meaning and you’ll want to see when that happens. Hopefully Shamel Pitts brings more of his work back to BAM soon.

Seen 12 May 2019 | Photo by Itai Zwecker

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Rich and complex

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The Reviews Hub - America

The American team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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