The Only Tribe
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
December 5, 2008
Modern interpretive dance may strike you as unintelligible, and you may very well be right, but one thing is certain: The Only Tribe will hold your attention from start to finish.
The performance begins very slowly with a single masked dancer emerging from the wings. The music eases in gently as more and more dancers emerge, moving in slow staccato and very angular movement. Their masks, for this first tribe, are tall and rectangular with squares and blocks cut out for the performers' faces and to lend the masks a little individuality.
As the dancers become other tribes (changing masks offstage), their masks change shape and their movements along with them. Broad rays of red, orange, and blue light streak across the stage and hit the flat, white masks, transforming them. Throughout the performance the masks are used as screens for projecting various images, words, and colors. Downstage from top to bottom is a thin, taut scrim on which projections of the dancers appear to dance with the dancers on stage. This plays some dazzling perspective tricks on the audience because we are given the chance to look at either the projections on the scrim, the masks, or the back wall. These sorts of visual perspective techniques (and certainly the music too) really held my attention throughout the show.
Creative director and mask designer Roland Gebhardt's vision of tribalism and spiritualism is clear and yet at the same time very abstract. There are many moments that flow with intensity and intention, but there are many others that are redundant and bewildering. While the performance has abundant energy and ingenuity it lacks emotional impact and overall left me feeling cold. I could clearly see the formation of group identity and cultural relativism but I didn't feel happy or sad for the groups. Nor is there tension or even a little discernible conflict between the groups. At one point Gebhardt shows us many symbols of corporate greed such as brand names and logos and also symbols of political power but they do not have meaningful connections with the movement on stage and therefore their effect falls as flat as the masks. The performance is based on a story by Rebecca Bannor-Addae but since there is no dialogue and no character there are no plot points to embrace.
Composer Stephen Barber cobbles together a soulful mix of electronic beats and mellow woodwinds such as the bass clarinet with some violin and other string instruments thrown in. The music is an absolutely essential component of this piece and yet it could easily stand alone. There are, however, several instances in which one segment of the music ends and there is a jolting silence before the next segment begins. Stephen Arnold's lights create many remarkable effects on the masks and they set the various moods just perfectly. Reid Farrington's video design, especially the recordings of the dancers, is extremely well done. The projections appear almost holographic as the live dancers dance alongside them. I liked the thick red lines between the tribes in the beginning that are eventually broken down and obscured in the end.
Choreographer Peter Kyle lends the production a unique style and he pays close attention to the details of the movement of each tribe. For example, the rectangles move geometrically while the triangles slither like snakes. The dancers, for their part, do an amazing job! They move with precision and poise and they also do a good job animating their masks considering that they are given only flat, geometrical shapes.The Only Tribe has its saving graces in the visuals and the music but it fails to make substantial connections to its themes. Still, I didn't feel like I wasted my time. The production may be worth a look if only to see how some of the ingenious technical effects come together.