Shamel Pitts and TRIBE usher in a new epoch of avante garde dance at the MCA with “Touch of RED."


A life can be measured in epochs, periods of time where events and influences converge to form an era. We experiment with our minds and bodies during our “college years” and plan for retirement in our “Golden Years,” a first crush, first romantic relationship, marriage, divorce. That is how I would describe “Touch of RED,” as an intense, emotional epoch between two Black men squeezed into one-hundred and one minutes.

On April 7, audiences were invited to view “Touch of RED,” by Shamel Pitts and Brooklyn-based artist’s collective, TRIBE, not from the usual audience perspective, but on the stage of the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as part of the "Friction" series. The change of perspective was physical, but soon transcended to the metaphysical.

I entered the marble foyer of the MCA close to show time and thought, “What’s everyone doing milling around?” I tried the doors to the theater (they were locked). An announcement by the MCA’s Curator of Performance, Tara Aisha Willis, informed us that we would not be entering the theater in the usual way. Via elevator or stairwell, we descended into the labyrinthine maze of dressing rooms towards the backstage entrance. Like a scene from a David Lynch movie, two smiling ushers simultaneously gestured with one hand to a row of seating, with additional chairs in two rows lining four sides of a set that looked like a large box with the middle cut out, the top suspended overhead.

The TRIBE team—video, light and mapping designer Lucca Del Carlo, set designer Mimi Lien, composer Sivan Jacobivitz and theatrical lighting designer Rus Snelling—use light and practical effects to create a dynamic set. Light projections coat the walls of the bifurcated cube in a blood red color that moves like boiling lava; the walls on top and bottom separate and fall apart creating a haunting atmosphere, complete with loud jump scares that visibly startled a couple people—a kicked over stool scared me out of my seat!

As we enter, we watch two trim Black men (Shamel Pitts, Tushrik Fredericks) in red tops and shorts dance together as if in a crowded club. Several motifs develop—drawn in, club dance-inspired “hands in the air,” childish skips, a stiff samba-like twist—and reappear later when one or both are experiencing moments of enjoyment and ease. During this phase, their bodies, particularly their faces, are extremely close, giving off an air of intimacy that makes the viewer feel like a voyeur. Thus begins their emotional epoch.

I don’t suppose there is any one way to analyze “Touch of RED,” but due to the intense intimacy between Pitts and Fredericks, I can’t help but being drawn to a chronological narrative of “like, love and loss”. Like: the two men launch into a flurry of karate-like, straight arm strikes to a repeating syncopated, thumping beat, their dodges and near-misses a metaphor for apprehensive lovers searching for consent and reciprocation. Love: A scene of passionate eroticism erupts in the form of jiu jitsu-like grappling and tumbling, a thin metaphor for passionate lovemaking. Loss: An awesome display of pixelated light with a black hole at its center swallows up Pitts, whose body twists and contorts in agony, his face racked with exhaustion as he dies; In death he lingers like a ghost, watching his companion’s life move on without him.

“Touch of RED” held me in its grasp from the second I entered the venue, from the twisting route to my seat, to the stark intimacy immediately on display. It set all my nerves on fire, still burning as I recall the experience. “Touch of RED” is like watching a time lapse video of two flowers blooming then one withering while the other continues to grow. Pitts, Fredericks and TRIBE play out an entire emotional epoch right before our eyes, the memorable experience ushers in a new era of engrossing works of dance at the MCA.