This much is certain: Choreographer Ani Taj's star is a-rising, even if her current concatenation of dance, performance and live theater is a bit of a half-baked idea waiting to be expanded on. OntheFloor takes place in the basement of the trendy ACE Hotel on West 29th Street. In the tradition of theater productions such as Sleep No More and The Donkey Show, when guests arrive they are greeted by a gracious hostess, a paying bar and a two-hour performance in which they follow -- and sometimes join -- dancers and actors in a series of adjacent rooms. Taj and her company, The Dance Cartel, are enthusiastic and charismatic to a fault: Energy and exuberance checkmate all else, however, including a more careful attempt at matching choreography to a theme or story. (And no, dance does not necessarily need story, but it helps.)
Mysteriously enough in retrospect, OntheFloor opens up with a mock art auction at the end of which the auctioneer -- who is also a dancer -- is attacked and restrained by what I took to be mock police and the auction is shut down. On a screen behind the auctioneer, the words "What is contemporary dance/Qu'est ce que la danse contemporaine?" appear. Hence Taj mixes elements of Gaga, performance art from the '60s and '70s, and surrealism in this souped up 2012 vision of "social dance." Exit room one, and the audience now moves to a next door space where the über-enthusiastic Taj holds up a camcorder to explain examples of native dance that she has studied on a recent trip to Brazil. She calls attention, for example, to the overly swaying hips and remarkable rhythm of the on-screen performances. This is followed by a series of quick-paced club-land dance numbers in room number three, in which Taj herself participates.
Although these do indeed show the influence of her Brazilian experience, they are more or less choreographically unremarkable. (Which doesn't mean that they are not fun!) The company's press materials state that "Taking note of a dance community that too often suffers from anemia and esotericism, The Dance Cartel seeks to create dances that are vibrant, immersive and often participatory." Fair enough. Much contemporary dance may in fact be anemic and/or overly esoteric, but I am not sure that what The Dance Cartel is presenting in OntheFloor -- so-called "social dance" which thrives on audience participation and an overly facile attempt at deconstructing aspects of modern dance -- yields any more interesting results.
While Taj shines like a bright star throughout, the rest of her dancers are less impressive. And since Taj consciously highlights the link between her choreography and Brazilian dance, one needs to point out that these elements (the overextended hip thrusts, the rounded arm movements, and the "primitive" crazed trance-like state of the dancers) can all be traced back to Africa, whence Brazilian slaves originated before they brought these elements to their dances in the New World -- they are also present in everything from Elvis Presley's swaying hips to entire strands of contemporary dance. That Taj also highlights the issue of what contemporary dance is or isn't reveals itself to be more problematic. It is quite a question for anyone to bite off, after all -- and far more experienced and renowned choreographers (Graham, Cunningham, Forti, Brown) tackled this question over decades of incessant experimentation and intellectual questioning. Taj can only fall short if her answer continues to be the souped-up Afro-Brazilian inspired presentation that she has put together here. Unless of course her borrowing from Gaga, surrealism, the theater of the absurd and other modern movements is meant in a partly ironic mode -- but this was unclear from where I sat/stood the night I attended OntheFloor.
All this being said, OntheFloor is a wonderful night out if one is young and simply looking to watch and perhaps join in on some fast-paced and invigorating dancing -- though after a few numbers, the novelty of even Taj's energy begins to wear thin. Taj, I think, needs to make an important decision in the coming years. If what she wants is commercial success of the MTV and Dancing with the Stars variety, then she is on the right path -- and I don't mean that in a derogatory manner. If, however, she wants to take on serious questions in dance, choreographic, or theatrical history, then she needs to go back to the drawing board and study the history of her craft a bit more. (One would like to underscore that not everything "hi" on the Hi-Lo continuum is pretentious and not everything "lo" unworthy of attention.)
The Dance Cartel's Web site states that OntheFloor is "taking rhythm as a central theme," but that is a pretty loosey goosey creative statement to operate from. And any which way one looks at it, OntheFloor lacks a real through line: adding one couldn't hurt. If I sound overly critical, it is because Taj, a wonderfully lithe androgynous young woman with a shock of hair dyed red, is one of the more effervescent new talents to appear on the scene in quite a while. She has more energy and spunk than a medium-sized comet and she should succeed at whatever she undertakes in the future. This critic, for one, will be patiently waiting for her time to arrive.