The first 15 minutes of Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson’s dance class are spent lying down, breathing, but otherwise silent. Most of their students have no experience, so it’s a good place to start. They debuted the class about two years ago, with a weekly Sunday appearance at the Space Upstairs, in Point Breeze. They do it less frequently now, but still, it starts with breathing.
The duo, who dance, teach and make music as slowdanger, are classically trained dancers, so they know how important it is to feel comfortable in your body before it can become a vessel for expression. One of their first dance collaborations consisted simply of standing still at opposite sides of a room, staring at each other. Sometimes you gotta have stillness and silence to move and make noise.
“We need to stand still until the urge to move comes through us,” says Thompson.
Now, five years into a prolific artistic partnership, slowdanger is no longer standing still.
In December of last year, with support from The Heinz Endowments, the pair wrote, performed and directed an ensemble dance piece called memory 4, staged at the New Hazlett Theater. In addition to releasing a number of tracks online last year, they contributed an EP called Feed Your Demon to local netlabel La Squadra’s year of monthly releases. (The label is run by Dario Miceli, who is also their manager.)
And finally, on April 20, they’re releasing their full-length debut, a provocative and challenging LP called body (they’re not big on capital letters) on MISC Records. They’ll celebrate the album’s release at a show at the Glitter Box Theater on April 21.
Like their dance compositions, the 10 tracks on body are sensual, adventurous and abstract. Reverb dominates nearly every corner of the production. Every song contains at least a few familiar elements of dance music, but the overall effect is surreal and disorienting and mesmerizing.
“real fear, real lies” opens the album with a slow, threatening build, colored by menacing synths, syncopated hi-hats and Thompson’s eerie distant vocals. That description fits most of body, actually, aside from a few outliers like the beautiful “honey please,” which consists only of ethereal vocal loops — no synth keys or drums, no brick-and-mortar beat — and a hypnotic lyrical melody from Thompson.
Knight and Thompson’s partnership dates to their days in the dance program at Point Park University. They had what they call a “Facebook-messenger pen pal” friendship, exchanging pieces of dance and music they found inspiring over social media. Knight had a background in tap, while Thompson was trained in classical and musical theater, but both felt somewhat constrained by the rigidness of more traditional dance.
“I don’t even like Broadway, what am I doing?” Thompson remembers thinking.
The summer after graduation, in 2012, the duo started making short films together and started composing the scores themselves. It was ambient stuff, often built on field recordings captured on their phones. But as they got more experience, they started to recognize that the music could stand on its own.
Around the same time, they started to become involved romantically. Their first date was a show at Garfield Artworks featuring the Pittsburgh band Host Skull. Guitarist David Bernabo had asked Knight if he’d be interested in contributing improvised dance to the performance, which Knight failed to inform Thompson of beforehand. Nevertheless, they showed up and danced together to the performance on stage for 25-30 minutes, an experience Thompson calls “mysterious and scary.” That innate, off-the-cuff chemistry, often unspoken and difficult to describe, is what makes slowdanger’s work so surefooted, and the performers so confident in what they make and why they make it.
Another distinct quality of slowdanger’s work is the interest, or rather disinterest, in the idea of “completed work.” Samples from earlier releases are littered throughout body; Knight and Thompson consistently recycle and revisit past metaphors in their music and their dance; nothing they do is ever decidedly final.
“Whenever we hear, ‘Oh, it’s a work-in-progress showing’ or, ‘It’s a preview,’ we always think, everything is a work in progress,” says Knight.
“We’re not reaching the precipice of a mountain,” says Thompson. “We’re constantly climbing a forever mountain.”
Hitting the nail on the head for their Sisyphean imagery, one of their dance pieces involves the perpetual rolling of a car tire around the stage.
If you’ve never seen them perform, start with their recently released video for “interaction,” from body. The video, directed by Bailey Donovan, leads off with the duo cast in a variety of lights and projected images, their faces superimposed into an amorphous being. But things really kick off when the beat drops: An ensemble of bodies, many former students of their dance class, begin sensual, pelvic movements in a variety of complexity and clothedness.
One particularly enticing visual finds many of the bodies partially dismembered. Think Venus de Milo, dancing in slow motion. The overall effect is haunting and sexy, which also works as the three-word version of this story.
In the coming months, slowdanger has a number of performances planned and dance classes scheduled, as well as plans to incorporate new technology like motion-capture into their performances. As always, it’s a work in progress.