"OnTheFloor," the performance piece that comes to Club Café this Thursday night, defies a conventional description.
"I've gone to The Dance Cartel's 'OnTheFloor' four times and still have no idea what to call it," wrote HuffPost contributor John-Stuart Fauquet in a 2013 story about attending a performance of the show created by the Dance Cartel under its director Ani Taj.
"That's not a complaint, mind you," he continues. "Part dance, part video installation, part DJ set and part concert, describing the evening as a 'performance' or a 'show' doesn't do it justice, because 'OnTheFloor' is more than that. It's a crazy, communal, underground, energetic, messy, drunken, carnivalesque, silly, social, artistic, glittery, participatory, emotional, vibrant, bass pumping, choreographic EVENT. (If you come up with something better, I'm all ears.)"
Described in its press materials as "a new brand of dance experience," "OnTheFloor" is the latest immersive theater event to come to Boston. If you remember, it was here that "Sleep No More" had its U.S. debut six years ago before settling in a long run in New York (where it still plays); and over in Cambridge "The Donkey Show" continues to mix Shakespeare and 1970s disco at Oberon where it has been running since 2009.
According to the show's mission, "With 'OntheFloor,' The Dance Cartel hopes to cultivate a broad, atypical new dance audience and diverse social platform that becomes only what the audience wants it to be: a participatory dance performance; a throwback to a Warhol-era nightclub; unique performance art; all of the above? Or maybe it's simply New York's best dance party?"
The Dance Cartel is the brainchild of choreographer Ani Taj who came up with the idea after visiting Brazil during Carnaval. Having experienced the joy of that communal experience, she hoped to find a way of capturing it in performances back in the States. The shows she came up with began performing in various spaces in New York, before settling in at Liberty Hall in Manhattan's Ace Hotel. It is there that their shows have developed what the New York Times describes as "a cool-kid following."
EDGE spoke to Taj recently about the show, the Cartel and the way she pushes the boundaries of the theater-going experience.
EDGE: Why is the Dance Cartel called a new brand of dance experience?
Ani Taj: A key part of the Cartel's mission is to break down the boundary between audience and performer and to open up the expectation of what a dance performance can be: it's a party AND a show, an experience AND a story. The idea is to open up the doorway for audiences to go into full party mode with us, even as our dancers are performing complex choreography and high-endurance numbers. We never force anyone into the spotlight (that makes me cringe as an audience member), but we set up the conditions so everyone can play together...
EDGE: How would you describe your upcoming show at Club Café?
Ani Taj: It's exciting to partner with a Boston party and to see a new synergy emerge. We'll be adapting the show to Club Café's space, which means utilizing its particularities and all areas of the room that we can activate. We're excited to have our resident vocalist Grace McLean on the show, who just happens to be in town with a big show up at ART, so she'll shake the room down with a couple live tunes. We may also have a local Brazilian percussionist, so lots of exciting partnerships on this one!
EDGE: What can the audience expect?
Ani Taj: Keep it open. Anything can happen -- and often does. We're surprised by curveballs the audience throws at us, and that makes the show a new experience. I can say you can expect to regret wearing stilettos though -- wear something you feel free to move around in.
EDGE: How did the Dance Cartel come about?
Ani Taj: The Cartel was born in great part out of a rush from research trip to Brazil, where I trained for several months and took a lot of footage of Carnaval and preparations for it in the streets of Salvador da Bahia. The incredibly joyful and accessible relationship to movement, music, dance there hit me hard and I started scratching my head for how to bring that to the dance scene in the states.
We did a one-time party performance called Bjorkball in which the crowd was standing and saw the opportunity to make the crowd part of the architecture of our work, moving them around as needed and making them part of the celebration. Dance shouldn't only be fun for the dancers, right? Ken Friedman asked us to design a full show that functioned that way, so we brought DJs and live musicians on board to really make the thing come alive, and that's how it started.
EDGE: Is your goal to get people on the floor to dance?
Ani Taj: It's one of the perks, but not a hard objective. It's not something to force; we like to create conditions for people to cut loose and be alive in the room with us.
EDGE: How do you come up with the dances that you include in the show?
Ani Taj: A combination of musical and rhythmic drive, the playful and ludicrous sensibility of each of the dancers and their freakish personalities, and creating a flow that results in a complete experience for the audience. We leave lots of room for idiocy -- laughter is an important part of this beast.
EDGE: Is what you do part of the growing participatory theater movement?
Ani Taj: I guess there's a move towards work that throws people more fully into the live experience right now, as so much of our time is dominated by the digital world now... We didn't come at it strategically as part of a movement or trend though. It's just a way to create joy.
EDGE: What makes what you do different than other participatory shows?
Ani Taj: We'll let you decide!
EDGE: The New York Times said you have a 'ragtag artistic sensibility.' What is that?
Ani Taj: Buncha freaks this company is -- no streamlined monochrome unitards here. One of our dancers articulated it nicely, 'The Cartel is a freakshow and everyone is a star.' So that's part of it maybe?
EDGE: Congratulations on achieving quite a following over the past few years. What do you attribute your success to?
Ani Taj: Oh gahsh. Thanks for saying. We love what we do and we try to make it feel good for the people that come play with us. We also never stop -- we've been doing parties and galleries and experiential screenings every couple weeks, so it's fun to keep igniting new collaborations and meeting new crowds. We are now trying to shift into a more focused zone for a while, quality over quantity...
EDGE: Can anything happen in a Dance Cartel show?
Ani Taj: We like to invite wild cards (so yes, as long as you're a loving drunk... No aggression except in your dance moves please). A few audience members have split their pants. A lot of people have made out, some have even started dating (it's a good date). A few suits have shown up and broken it down with us.
EDGE: Why is it important for you to keep your ticket prices affordable?
Ani Taj: We want dance (and our shows) to be accessible to a broad public, not an initiated or endowed few. When a ticket is over a certain price you start ruling out a big chunk of the people that could come to your show. Since our audience is a key part of the creation of each experience, we want that experience to be rich with information from people from all walks of life, ages, cultural backgrounds, careers paths... everyone moves differently and we like for those moves to play together.