“I can feel my creation.”
Diahann Carroll, as an alien hologram, purrs this line in the bizarro 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special where she’s an erotic fantasy sprung to life by a Wookiee who imagines her for his pleasure. In the experimental dance piece Discotropic at the COIL festival, a dancer crawling across a stage towards the audience taunts us with the same speech given by Carroll but recontextualizing it as part of a larger work looking at science fiction, disco, and Afrofuturism. Choreographer and dancer niv Acosta creates a dynamic piece that reflects a wide swath of musical and visual touchstones, but Acosta seems most focused on looking critically at black and queer representation.
Otherworldly references with a racial bent are indicated throughout beyond the Star Wars Holiday Special speech, including clips of the experimental sci-fi movie Space is the Place with musician Sun Ra dressed a la Tutankhamen launching bubble probes into the air and in the mystical symbols drawn on the dancers’ shorts. Even DJ Dion TygaPaw wears a decadent white hood with an air of a transcendental Grace Jones. But the success of the piece is owed to linking all the dazzling alien accoutrement to a more earthbound feeling of alienation. Acosta achieves that through the smart contrasts in the use of space, movement, and vocalization.
In a large basement space under Labyrinth Theater Company’s theater, Acosta’s four dancers move to Afro-Cuban rhythms with a nod to traditional African dance, execute synchronized stylized entrances and exits suitable for 60’s girl groups, and throw in a little punctuated hip-hop. Each segment feels well-crafted within its designed universe and the thematic threads largely link these various styles (save for the final segment where I was left puzzled when they shouted “cunty” a lot).
Beginning with isolated cubicle spaces where each performer dances alone and leading to a large runaway space where eventually the dancers congregate, Acosta’s juxtaposition of small spaces and wide expanses suggests confinement and release. Outsider and insider. Individual and group. The dancers, once unleashed, eventually circle the room and explore almost every corner.
The constantly shifting active dance space forces the audience to stay sharp. By physically moving the audience around the room, there’s always a sense of unease and burgeoning expectation.
Acosta keeps the audience thinking and reacting, as well. Acosta reframes the way we look at the dancers and their bodies throughout Discotropic. The performers represent a range of body types and gender expressions. Costuming in disco-style hot pants as well as diaphanous material, netting, and other cut aways exposes chests and breasts. This keeps bodies and gender at the forefront as the dancers move.
At first the dancers perform under black lights in the individual cubicles with their faces largely obscured and only parts of their bodies glowing. Later they are returned to the cubicles now lit with a bright, harsh light. Watching them make the same movements fully exposed becomes more confrontational when we can make eye contact with the dancer in this close proximity. In this segment, the dancers thrust, shake, vibrate, bounce, bend, and extend and the violent release is barely contained in the small rooms they inhabit.
Acosta further upends expectations by varying the synchronicity of the choreography. Acosta’s dancers may often move in step with each other but frequently Acosta inserts unique asynchronous beats for one performer within the group. Rather than robotic conformity, the individual shouts out to be noticed and acknowledged. Separating the dancers into their own quadrants and then reuniting them provides another layer to this tension between standing out and blending in.
In contrast to poor Diahann Carroll and her erotic hologram’s limited existence, each dancer here has a moment of clear agency. This peaks with a chanting segment where each performer sings a different tune while the others chant together. Their rallying cry becomes more and more anguished the longer they repeat it, “Consider yourself defective for not seeing me. I ain’t going nowhere.” Acosta’s consciousness-raising Discotropic makes it hard to argue with that.