Shamel Pitts’s “Touch of Red,” at New York Live Arts, takes place in a boxing ring. It’s not a competition, though. It’s a relationship.
What we call a ring in boxing is actually a quadrilateral, a shape with corners. The choreographer Shamel Pitts’s “Touch of Red” takes place in one, surrounded by the audience seated on all sides. Mimi Lien’s set establishes the boundaries of the ring with low border walls but increases the drama by hanging above it a huge open shape with the same outline. It looms like an upside-down gift box hovering over an inverted lid made by the low walls and the floor.
Pitts starts inside this structure, dancing with Tushrik Fredericks. And throughout the hourlong duet, which had its New York premiere at New York Live Arts on Thursday, the two men never leave. Stools in two corners suggest boxing, and the men are in tightfitting athletic attire (by Dion Lee). Yet at first, gently bouncing and grooving close together, they look more like they are at a club.
That’s the idea. Although the men periodically retreat to their corners, as if between rounds, this is a nonviolent encounter. Here, the boxer’s clinch is a slow-dance embrace. The men might be lovers, or friends, or siblings. Before a round, someone says “OK,” consenting. This isn’t a competition. It’s a relationship.
In places, the form of a fight remains. The men swipe at each other with strokes from freestyle swimming, dodging with quick, hinging motions. They entangle on the ground, almost as if wrestling, all pretzeled up, one man’s foot caught on the other’s shoulder.
They also borrow moves from the Lindy Hop: partnered spins and crossover steps, lifts that put Fredericks’s feet in the air with his back on Pitts’s hunched back. But these moves have been drained of groundedness and swing. Something similar is true of the borrowings from boxing. Treating them as dance, Pitts reveals and revels in a masculine softness, but in leaching out aggression, he’s leached out much of the tension and intensity too.
Like other productions by Pitts’s arts collective, Tribe, “Touch of Red” compensates with sophisticated design. Sivan Jacobovitz’s electronic score, borrowing some ambient mood from Ben Frost and Burial, supplies rumbles, buzzes and synthesizer clouds. Lucca Del Carlo’s video projections bathe the dancers in Keith Haring-like patterns and paisley-shaped swirls. Rus Snelling’s expert lighting sometimes draws attention to the audience and our spectatorship. And Lien’s brilliant set is equipped with surprises.
But the show takes a long time to warm up, and it drifts. Near the end, two explosive solos raise the temperature, each man trying to get something out in his own way — Pitts with a headstand, Fredericks bending back and circling the space with open arms. And when they reunite, rotating in a slow-dance embrace with Fredericks’s feet on top of Pitts’s, it feels conclusory. Yet the work does not end.
Instead, the men separate, dance alone, stretch together and crawl around each other in circles like dogs. Even after the applause, it isn’t over, as the dancers move their stools to chat with each side of the audience in turn — giving thanks, sharing stories of the sensations and experiences that inspired “Touch of Red,” speaking so softly that only one segment of the audience at a time can hear. It’s a gesture that draws some viewers in while leaving others out. So does the rest of the work.
Shamel Pitts | Tribe
Through Saturday at New York Live Arts; newyorklivearts.org.