I had no idea what to expect, quite honestly, when I arrived at Boyle Heights warehouse Vocal last week for Toogie Barcelo and William Ÿlvisaker’s VORTEX. Sure, I was familiar with a few of the dancers—local artists on the bill with an incredible physical sensibility drew me to the performance in the first place. But this work was more experience than performance; Barcelo and Ÿlvisaker challenged notions of the viewer and the performer-audience relationship, almost chastising audience members for unwillingness to participate.

The evening began with a pop-up shop featuring local artists, and though the 7:07 p.m. start time was a bit slow; the courtyard was packed to standing room before 8:33 p.m. ‘curtain.’ It was clear that Barcelo and Ÿlvisaker have an established community in Los Angeles, full of misfit artists ready to support their own.

Of course, at 8:33 p.m. as we entered the warehouse, there was no curtain at all. The first challenge to a western audience’s perspective on dance is the elimination of the proscenium. It’s not a new concept to the Los Angeles dance world—or even the dance world at all, for that matter—but nonetheless an established choice to put performers and observers on equal ground. The lack of a raised stage literally puts a dancer on the same level as their audience, meaning more eye contact and likely physical interaction.

The first movements in the space, once the audience had settled, were from a plush contraption in the center of the bench seating, orange and almost reminiscent of children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba—except with many, many more irregular limbs. A mover inside the contraption crawled slowly to establish a baseline energy, emphasized a dull, droning sound that was broadcast into the space. Dancer Ryan Walker Page entered the space then, walking slowly for a few moments and then screaming at the top of his lungs: a break in the plateau of dull noise that made half the audience jump. This was a second indication of subversive statement: interrupting expectations for the sake of interrupting expectations.

(L to R) Cody Potter, Tess Hewlett - VORTEX - Photo by Alex Laya

(L to R) Cody Potter, Tess Hewlett – VORTEX – Photo by Alex Laya

Page met performer Jimmy Carrozo mid-floor. Carrozo himself is a subversion as well: much older than the rest of the cast, his presence inevitably points out ageism in dance. It’s no secret that most of us retire before 45, and sometimes with good reason. But Carrozo kept up with a cast of young and able masculine dancers the entire evening.

Charissa Kroeger gave the audience what they wanted in a stunning solo, moving with abandoned control. Kroeger was born to dance if anyone ever was; captivating and interesting with an ability to guide observers through her process, she brought the night’s biggest applause. But somehow, her moment was just a blip in time, a very small piece of a much larger message.

Cody Potter and Tess Hewlett exchanged anxious energy through intense breaths, painted in dichotomous black and white patterns if only to appear otherworldly.

Several dancers then emerged (Carrozo included) for a theatrical piece that allowed each a moment to revel in their individual characters and did its darndest to break the fourth wall. As the number ended, they filtered into the crowd to hold the audience’s hands (quite literally). A voice-over encouraged us to check in with our bodies and then move in slow motion to the adjoining room (the next portal), all while holding hands with our nearest neighbor.

(L to R) Cody Potter, Tess Hewlett - VORTEX - Photo by Alex Laya

(L to R) Cody Potter, Tess Hewlett – VORTEX – Photo by Alex Laya

This, to me, was where the intention veered into campy territory. The voice, altered to sound like its owner had inhaled helium, seemed too extreme an attempt to evoke space travel and alien life. And while some of the dancers were incredibly committed to the slow-motion walk (Lenin Fernandez never once broke character), some were a bit less immersed. I was taken out of the creepy and strange world of new beings and put back into a warehouse in Boyle Heights.

Joe Berry’s ‘live sonic performance,’ which took place in the next room, was impressive—his ability to translate melodies and feelings through several different instruments while transitioning smoothly did indeed create quite an alien atmosphere.

A final pilgrimage back into the first room was led by Potter and Hewlett, who danced a quirky duet between the doors to the warehouse bathroom and storage closet. All culminated in a portal-hopping dance party, which I admit was a bit less finality and closure than I would’ve liked. But overall, VORTEX did indeed make me aware of my preconceived notions about viewer/participant duties: it just didn’t quite take me into another world.

For more about Toogie Barcelo, click here.

Featured image: Tess Hewlett, Cody Potter – VORTEX – Photo by Alex Laya