Fort Worth — Pelvic thrust. Finger jab. Body pivot. Leg twitch. You won’t find these techniques in any fencing manual, but they are front and center in the climactic fencing section in Joshua L. Peugh’s new athletic and light-hearted work HALT!, part of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance’s Spring Series: Bleachers, May 5-7, at Erma Lowe Hall Studio Theatre on the campus of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. In this section the six faceless dancers come together for a dynamic unified movement sequence full of all our favorite Peugh mannerisms, including loose-limbed jumps, heavy walks, primal body positions and sweeping floor movement, before breaking into pairs for the epic fencing battle.
Here, Peugh blends some common fencing techniques such as lunges, attacks and advancements with more spontanious-looking movement to heighten the viewers’ anticipation. As the couples continue to pace around one another their aggressive body exchanges become smaller and looser as their focus becomes more internal until they bounce, sway and gyrate to a heavy club beat that had my heart racing and toes tapping as I watched them rehearse at Preston Center Dance in Dallas on Monday.
The concept for HALT! has been on Peugh’s mind for a while now, which he says really began to take shape after watching the fencing competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. “I have always been fascinated by the sport of fencing,” Peugh says. “I am drawn to the sport’s formality and aesthetic. I remember looking at a photo in which the two competitors where dressed in white outfits standing on a red mat, and I just really liked the look of it.”
Peugh says he also likes the anonymity the fencing masks provide, which he plays up in this piece by having the dancers wear the masks the entire time. He also does this by dressing the group in identical white jumpsuits similar to what fencers wear in competition, which were designed by local talent Susan Austin, who also designed the 1960s’ dresses for Peugh’s Rite of Spring. He adds that growing up he was a fan of the graphic comic series Saga and the character Prince Robot who has a monitor screen for a head, and maybe that is where the initial idea came from to cover the dancers’ faces.
“I knew from the beginning that I was going to use the masks. Part of our mission as a company is to showcase dance as a universal language and show audiences that you don’t need to see the dancers’ faces or hear them talk in order to see them express themselves. By having the dancers’ faces covered, I wanted them to focus on communicating purely through their bodies, and I really hope this comes across in the work.”
I don’t think communicating solely from their bodies will be a problem for this cast, which includes Cody Berkeley, Emily Bernet, Olin Blackmore, Rebecca Grace Moore, Lena Oren and Taylor Rodman. After all, Peugh intentionally seeks out dancers who have an innate understanding of how their bodies move and are comfortable in their own skin. This can be seen throughout the entire work but especially in moments such as when Blackmore slowly crosses the floor on all fours while pushing, bunching up the long red carpet that is laid out on the stage with his head, or when the dancers toss scraps of paper at Moore as she slowly struts down the red carpet waving and touching her mask in a very Miss USA manner. When asked if it was difficult for him to not incorporate the open-mouth expressions and toothy grins that are prominent in a lot of his works Peugh chuckled before replying, “It took us a while to get the masks so I actually created the whole thing without the masks including some facial gestures which I kept in because I feel they are still echoed in the dancer’s bodies.”
As Peugh has mentioned in previous interviews he is not the type of choreographer who likes to tell his dancers how they should think or feel while performing his work. He has been quoted saying, “I think it’s more interesting to see what comes out of the dancers in the moment, instinctively, during the performance. It won’t ever be the same thing.” Instead Peugh prefers to use sing word prompts and crazy characterizations during the rehearsal process to help the dancers connect to the work. “This is your fantasy of what it is to be a great fencing master. Now, go for it.”
HALT! is just one of three new works that Dark Circles Contemporary Dance will be presenting at its annual Spring Series performance in Fort Worth this weekend. The program also includes New York-based choreographer Gregory Dolbashian’s Evermore with a musical score arranged by himself and Peugh’s highly-talked about Bleachers, which explores the lack of sex education for gay boys and the resulting confusion, shame and isolation they feel as they struggle with their manhood.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com