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Redefining Costume with KAIROS Dance Theater’s ‘HUSK/VESSEL’

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Rarely does a dance render a costume, let alone a plain white sheet of fabric, to be the focal point of the performance, but “HUSK/VESSEL” — a multimedia project by Boston’s KAIROS Dance Theater — isn’t a traditional dance. A collaboration between choreographer Paula Josa-Jones and KAIROS co-founder and executive artistic director DeAnna Pellecchia that premiered on Oct. 14, “HUSK/VESSEL” explored how costume can function as both covering and habitat. Although the performers’ impressive displays of energy were interspersed with longer stretches of choreography that lacked momentum, KAIROS Dance Theater’s narrative exploration of costume in dance was ultimately one to remember.

Over the course of its 45-minute run time, “HUSK/VESSEL” evolved from group performance to solo features to duets. Each dancer inhabited and embodied their own fabric, at times weaponizing it to ensnare another dancer. The overall tempo of the piece felt slow, not just in terms of run time but also in the movement arc of the dancers. One section, for example, involved a gradual, collective migration from one corner of the stage to another during which dancers would trepidatiously transition through weight changes and pilatic positions. Isolated choreography, however, from head snaps to chaotic falls and trips over sheets, was well executed at the fast speed needed to convey the sense of urgency.

Some of the slower sections in “HUSK/VESSEL” seemed to drag on too long. However, the controlled plies and oxymoronic slow kicks generated inertia that sustained the progression of the choreography. In fact, what “HUSK/VESSEL” excelled at was the telling of a story purely through physical language. The vignettes of solo and duet performances involved a manipulation of the white sheets to create landscape and setting. One solo feature, for example, involved a dancer struggling to crawl out of their sheet, evocative of a nightmare manifested. Another vignette saw two dancers use their sheets as a means of entrapment — an attachment that was portrayed with force and aggression.

Rehearsing in makeup and costume marks the near completion of a dance piece’s development, from first learning choreography to finally performing. However, the white sheets dancers donned for the performance weren’t just accessories but extensions of the body. “HUSK/VESSEL” was developed and rehearsed entirely during the pandemic, which added another dimension to the meaning of the costume — an additional degree of separation between each dancer. The dancers' control of the sheets, or lack thereof, blurred the line between prop and costume. Different stages of the dance saw different usages of the sheets, from embellishing the dancers’ movements to restricting them. And although there was not a resounding conclusion to what exactly the function of the costume was, all forms of sheet choreography created exciting and unpredictable tension throughout the performance.

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The motion of the sheets, coupled with lighting design that gave the stage and the reptilian leotards worn by the dancers a bronze glow, created strong nautical sound-imagery. The nature motif persisted with the raw, hunter-gatherer-esque interactions between dancers and between each individual and their sheet. The performance ended with the dancers standing in a line, backs turned to the audience, their sheets draped around them like a covering for warmth or protection. Walking upstage towards the illuminated backdrop, the defined singularity of each dancer became more pronounced, yet the synchronization of their steps created a sense of unity. “HUSK/VESSEL” depicted a return to human beings’ most primitive, vulnerable state, where all we have is our body and our coverings. Grappling with exposure and safety, “HUSK/VESSEL” leaves one wondering about how our own outer layers define who we are.

—Staff writer Karen Z. Song can be reached at karen.song@thecrimson.com.

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