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Nicholas Leichter finds the common touch, fusing freestyle club, hip hop and street moves with modern dance

Choreography by contact 

Nicholas Leichter finds the common touch, fusing freestyle club, hip hop and street moves with modern dance

It's a snapshot--or a memory--we've all seen before. In a darkened club, a couple dances close under an ice blue spotlight. The man is right behind the woman, his arms on top of hers as her hands reach out toward the empty space before her. Then they pull back into his embrace, her arms and hands confined as he hugs her upper torso. Now freeze. Note the ambiguous expression on her face, and the one on his as well. Is this a gesture of comfort or constriction? Affection or confinement? Could it possibly be both things--and more--to both of them at the same time?

And before you question the reciprocation: How can you be sure? What isn't in the visual frame? What can only be conveyed, in time, by touch?

For choreographer Nicholas Leichter, whose company performs tonight and tomorrow at Duke, the last question is particularly crucial to Skin Diving, his most recent work. "Since we're such an incredibly diverse group, the essence of the piece involved determining how we're able to get to know each other if we don't spend a lot of time talking."

"The thing we came up with is that we learn from each other, we learn about each other through touch. We learn about our differences and similarities through touching; that is how we're able to move--literally, emotionally and metaphorically. For us, touch is the most powerful form of communication," he concludes.

For all that, it simultaneously leaves those not being touched with tantalizingly incomplete information. An air of almost cinematic suspense surrounds the characters in Skin Diving, as we slowly assemble the story behind the snapshot.

It's a point we made in our interview with him last week.

The Independent: There's not a conventional narrative here, but there is one that significantly respects the audience and the characters. The two are in a very complex relationship. They're attracted to each other and they are also repelled to some degree; there are forces pulling them together and forces pulling them apart.

And this is the problem so many playwrights, directors and choreographers have: They shortchange the complexity. It's all either fish or fowl: "Oh, we're in love, and oh, there's some problems, but since we're fundamentally in love it's all going to be OK."

Compared to the majority of work I see in theater and dance, there's very little handholding here. The work does question the validity of this relationship and the other relationships we see on stage, but it doesn't answer the question for us.

I never felt the choreographer ever rescued any of the characters or the audience. We're all in this world, it's a very complicated world, and dammit, we're not to be excused. We have to deal with it.

Nicholas Leichter: In many ways you've really hit it. Honestly, I can say this is easier said than done. I don't know if I can speak for all of my colleagues in modern dance, but just for argument's sake I will say we can be more successful at really putting issues out there because we are able to show the extremes of movement in our bodies, which for me is something sometimes lacking in authentic theater.

I'm never really going to hold back on anything, because the extremes of movement are really important to me.

But our colleagues do have difficulty finding a resolve. We're good at throwing things out there, but it's more difficult finding resolutions, solutions.

Actually, I don't know that I'm interested in doing that. That's not my experience: I feel there really is no easy answer in these very complicated relationships. I think that things that sometimes look dysfunctional aren't--that we don't really know what's going on inside.

At first, it seems the woman in the couple is trying to get away. But later it becomes clear there are things she clearly wants to hold on to in this relationship.

One of the things we worked really hard on was to make sure the man didn't look like Ike Turner (laughs). We really wanted to avoid some sort of "Ike and Tina" relationship--to make sure it's not as simple as that, it's not as simple as "they're this really dysfunctional couple, and everyone in the piece represents versions of them." No. It's not that simple.

Your work tends to present these characters without frame. You don't underline, or say, "OK, this is the relationship, this is the moral." There isn't that kind of easy or overt telegraphy going on with the audience. So many works don't trust the audience enough to let them get whatever meaning is implicit in the touch, the movement, the spatial relationships that are unfolding, the truth in the two bodies in front of us.

But there is a frame. My frame is really musical. That's the thing that puts me to the "other side" of modern dance, because I come from that underground club, hip hop background.

I will always have attention to the beat, that "four on the floor," that constant rhythm, that thing that keeps you dancing all night--that's the thing that got me interested in modern dance in the first place.

But I also think the music--

D'Angelo, Stevie Wonder, Thievery Corporation--

--it kind of relaxes the audience a little bit. If a duet with two men may make some people uncomfortable, there's still this kind of shading behind it that says, "Don't worry."

Don't worry??

Yeah. No matter how far I go with the extremes of my work, I think the music lets them know: "OK, I'm going to push this as far as I possibly can. But don't worry--it's going to be over in five minutes." (Laughs.)

Some of the solos I've shown at ADF--there've been some pretty fucked up characters in those solos, but everybody knows the song. And everybody knows it's only 4 1/2 minutes long.

OK...

I feel like there's sometimes a difference between challenging the audience, pushing their tolerance, and having no respect for them--or just not being aware, not being sensitive to them. I don't want to say our colleagues are insensitive, but I do think we're not always so sure as to what's working and what isn't. What's visual and what's visceral. What's reading, what's being read.

How would you describe your company's breakthrough piece, Free the Angels?

It was the first integration of the entire company into all of the styles, the influences, the diversity--into who we really are. I hate to analyze my own work, but Afro-Cuban influences, varieties of contemporary and modern dance techniques, my background in underground club freestyling--all of those things come into play, integrated into Stevie Wonder's music. Since it closes the show, it's like we're ending with our introduction, closing with our mission.

Thematically, Free the Angels raises two big questions: the question of spirituality and the question of family, and the relationship between the two.

As underground in some ways as the material is, there's a lot of soaring in it too. There's exuberant partnering, but always coming back to earth. Because that's what takes you higher. It's about what happens if you've got the right situation, the right people, the right music and the right atmosphere. You are in heaven. (Chuckles.) You're about to go crazy.

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