Review: Passion Fruit Dance Company Brings the Club to the Stage

As they have been doing regularly since the start of the pandemic, the father-son D.J. duo known as St. James Joy got the party started right, this time at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival on Friday evening. Then D.J. Pfunk and the house producer Saadiq Bolden shook the newly renamed Lena Horne Bandshell, with some stronger sounds and enough bass to make even seated bodies vibrate. The atmosphere of a dance club was taken outside mostly intact.

All this, though, was preshow. The main event was a performance by the up-and-coming Passion Fruit Dance Company, which is dedicated to transferring the dance and culture of house and hip-hop from the club to the stage. And something about this transfer felt blocked, incomplete, trapped.

“Trapped,” in fact, was the title of the work, a premiere. The skilled dancers began encased in cocoons of stretchy fabric, and throughout the piece, they seemed to be trying to help one another break free. Yet even after they manipulated the fabric into skirts and aprons and shed the swathing, the concepts and choreography appeared to hold them back on a deeper level. The sense of entrapment in the work had more force than its clearly intended vision of escape.

The fabric cocoons might recall “Lamentation,” Martha Graham’s classic 1930 solo inside a textile tube, though Graham’s expression of grief didn’t have the percussive attack of these dancers, their hands escaping upward on a snare hit. Whether or not an allusion to Graham was intended, the problem from the start of “Trapped” wasn’t the idea; the problem was underdevelopment, the vague shaping in time of the various shapes the dancers were making with the fabric.

This was also true of the work’s other ideas. A section of shadowboxing gave new meaning to the boom-bap of the music (with imaginative beats by Bolden), but fizzled into a shaggy series of “shake it off” gestures. Again and again, the buildup was greater than the release. The supportive audience kept eagerly responding to danced signals of “here it comes” with shouts of encouragement, but the sparks never really caught fire, or not for long.

These are dancers of talent and distinction. Tatiana Desardouin, who founded and directs the group, exuded generosity and quiet power. Gyeun Jeong, also known as SooMissyBoog, popped with fierce precision. Nubian Néné posed with great finesse. Mai Le Ho and Lauriane Ogay had their moments. But anyone who has seen these dancers in a club setting — or in the better-constructed choreography of Rennie Harris — knows that they can do more, be wittier, take flight.

For me, the most frustrating misstep was the use of video. During much of the second half of the work, the dancers just sat onstage, repeatedly ceding attention to projected footage of themselves dancing in more stylish attire. Whether this was a representation of fantasy, a sad comment on dance during the pandemic or a poorly conceived rest break, it sapped all the energy the dancers were generating. With live and in-person dancing now more precious than ever, the last thing we need onstage is more screen time.

That’s a fixable error, however. And if “Trapped” ended without giving the dancers or the audience complete release, Desardouin had the right idea in bringing on the D.J. collective Soul Summit Music for a post-show dance party. She knows where the spirit moves, if not quite yet how to let it free onstage.

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