Last fall we raved about the energetic and exhilarating OntheFloor, a wild and crazy participatory performance by the Dance Cartel held in Liberty Hall downstairs at the Ace Hotel. For ninety minutes, a talented group of dancers moved and grooved through the dark space as the audience followed them around. Conceived and choreographed by Dance Cartel founder Ani Taj Niemann and codirected by Sam Pinkleton (Witness Relocation), OntheFloor returns to Liberty Hall on March 2, beginning a four-month residency that continues April 6, May 4, and June 1. You never know quite what’s going to happen or who’s going to show up at the fast-paced evening. Native New Yorker Taj recently gave twi-ny the lowdown as she prepared for the new set of performances.
twi-ny: What was the genesis of OntheFloor?
Ani Taj: The seed for OntheFloor was a short performance the Dance Cartel did at an art party called BjorkBall at Kent285 in Williamsburg, where we decided to move the crowd around us as we danced to create a shifting performance space. That idea was born largely out of my excitement about recent months I’d spent in Bahia, Brazil, where dance and music saturate everyday experience. In Bahia you get a lot of percussion in the streets, crowds dancing, spontaneous unison choreography in parades and concerts — people are constantly participating in rhythm and movement whether they like it or not. So when we got the offer to create an evening-length work based on the way we did BjorkBall, I thought I’d like to create an environment where people would have that same kind of permission to dance and participate, whether they’re dance savvy or not. Over time we’ve made a home for ourselves and our audiences at the Ace, but we keep it fresh with new material and guest artists for new collaborations.
twi-ny: How did you come upon the Ace?
Ani Taj: We really embrace the idea of making dance happen in unexpected places so that people outside of the usual dance crowd can have access to it. Ken Friedman (of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin restaurants) had the vision to bring us into Liberty Hall after seeing us at Kent285. There are challenges since the space is not intentionally outfitted for performance, but that’s part of the thrill of moving into new territory.
twi-ny: What do you tell dance fans who might be thinking twice about going to a show in a dark basement where they’ll have to move around for ninety minutes, being careful not to accidentally bump into the performers?
Ani Taj: Our MC offers a few simple guidelines at the top of the show, but mostly it’s common sense: if you see a body flying toward you, move; if you like the beat, groove. Part of the fun is that you're being asked to be aware of your own body in space — as you would at a crowded concert or club.
twi-ny: The show begins with a series of short acts from various genres, from comedy and video to participatory performance art. How are the acts chosen?
Ani Taj: Actually the evening you saw was unusual — that night there was a partnership with a publication that created that whole preshow. Usually we start off with just the Cartel, and sometimes there is a guest performer (usually musical) midway through the show. We are lining up our guests for the spring now — we’ll keep you posted. 😉
twi-ny: OntheFloor is the type of show where anything can happen. What’s the craziest thing you’ve experienced while performing the show?
Ani Taj: I’m happy to say there have been no major train wrecks, only happy convergences between unexpected groups of people. There was a great night where a dozen businessmen accidentally rolled in toward the end of our show, loved the feel, and they just cut loose and stayed dancing with us and our Brazilian drummers for a couple of hours. Our collaboration with Team Hotwheelz was also an incredibly gratifying, out-there experience; we cocreated a dance with two pioneer performers who happen to be in wheelchairs, Ali Stroker and Chelsie Hill, and then for that show we suddenly had multiple audience members in wheelchairs doing the Dougie with us.
twi-ny: You and Sam also teach the Dance Dancing Dance Company Class. Is that a class for anyone? What is the focus?
Ani Taj: The Dance Dancing Dance Company Company Class (DDDCCC) is very much a class for anyone — we’ve had everyone from trained dancers to sound designers to philosophy students, and the class is crafted to be both challenging and fun (yes, fun; dancing can be fun!) for people with disparate backgrounds. I think for both Sam and me, a sense of humor and an accelerated heart rate are important parts of the dance we want to see more of in the world. Students can expect to get low and sweaty and have a stupid good time but also to be challenged to capture the dynamics and rhythmic details of real dance sequences in the choreography portion of the class.