In 2015, audiences have a fairly fixed idea of what constitutes a “pop” performance. In stadiums and arenas, we expect to be dazzled for the price of our often very expensive tickets, moved from our seats not just with excellent music but with magnificent light shows, elaborate choreography, otherworldly costuming.
FKA twigs’ “Congregata” show, an elaborate work of theater that the British artist staged last year in London and is currently reprising a three-night run in New York, does not skimp on any of these things. But she also does it in a way that subverts and expands the concept of the pop performance, elevating flash-and-bang spectacle to a level of multimedia theater, and serious contemporary dance to the setting of a Brooklyn warehouse rave.
For several years there’s been a crisis of audiences in more institutional, traditional modes of performance—classical music, theater, dance—and a question of how to attract young people to see these traditional art forms in the age of technology. With Congregata twigs takes the structure of contemporary dance performance—telling a complete, thorough story through movement—adds in more modern, homegrown modes of dance like voguing, krumping, and bone-breaking, and plops it all in front of audiences there for her moody, elastic beats and lilting voice. (The music with full band is always excellent live, but it’s important to mention that her voice has gotten much, much stronger since I saw her last year—surer, clearer, sweeter.)
Congregata, showing as part of Red Bull Music Academy, was directed by twigs and assisted by Ryan Heffington and choreographer Aaron Sillis; its sheer scale, in a 2000-person warehouse, was impressive. At a certain point, red laser lights rained down upon her in straight streams; she and the dancers manipulated the light as part of the choreography and at one point, she reflected it back with her sequined top, the transformation into a human, one-person rave.
It was also notable that twigs paid homage to voguing, a dance style invented and thriving in New York, on its home turf, but even more notable how she did so. She’s only been voguing for about a year, but she’s been seen at various balls in New York City and at Vogue Knights, a regular Monday night haunt at a midtown club called Escuelita. (She and most of her crew headed there after the performance I saw.) In reference to her newbie status in the form, midway through, it was written in that the dancer Dashaun Wesley would emerge and tell her, essentially, to step aside for the legends. She moved herself from the stage and he began commentating—the staccato style of MCing that narrates the dance—and New York voguers combined spins, suicide dips, duckwalks and other feats of acrobatic grace on a stage that appreciated them.
Along with Wesley, the voguers included Derek Auguste, Alex Cephus, Javier Ninja, and Benjamin Milan—and for the grand finale, Leiomy Mizrahi, the legend herself, the queen of a million ariel flips turned suicide dips, the woman who could fly. They were all freestyling, but it was no big deal—the catwalk is no doubt the toughest place to learn—and Leiomy had been added to the performance just three days before. This makes twigs the first pop performer outside the ball scene to actually pay it proper respects—to allow the voguers to do what they do naturally on a stage she gave them, as opposed to reaping their talents and scene (family, actually, as it really is) and remaking them in her image for a time.
The other segments were less of a proscenium for the dance and culture, and more interpretive, integral to the music. I’ve pointed out the sexuality within twigs’ movements before. But in this context it’s overly simplistic to view the dancer’s bodies as just bodies. It’s easy to see Congregata as sexual when the bone breakers pop their arms from their joints and intertwine back to back, or when the whole ensemble collapses in a hunchbacked cuddle puddle, or when twigs and Derek Auguste push each other with force. But just as Twigs imbues her music with a sensuality but at the same time subverts it, the dancers in most of Congregata’s series of vignettes are not meant to be viewed literally; like her lyrics, they’re never about the most obvious thing.
At various points, I took away from Congregata that it was about godliness in expression, with allusions to religion particularly at the beginning—when twigs emerged with a cache of dancers illuminating her with lanterns, monklike—and at the end, when they lifted her up en masse to create a multi-limbed shape reminiscent of Kali. (From my perch at the back, her high-placed braid gave her a look a bit like the Buddha, too.) But whatever its deeper intent, it is a great accomplishment for an artist who is ostensibly in the dawn of her career. Like all of her art since “Hide,” her very first video released just three years ago, it is complete in its vision and scope. Next time, Congregata should be at Madison Square Garden.
Image via Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool
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