Featured in ecstatic music videos and ceremonial performances, Nina McNeely’s choreography is animated by a tension between agency and constraint.
DANCE LIKE the possessed girl from The Ring. The haunted house of hip-hop, birds dropping dead—these are some of the ways I’ve heard Nina McNeely’s style of choreography described. I have taken her experimental contemporary dance class almost every week for two years. The class was recently named “The Witching Hour,” a title with cultish overtones. The instructor—a choreographer, dancer, animator, and artist—often wraps herself in black fabric. Her long hair has been various shades of green, black, and blonde. Her pointed acrylic nails accent her often incantatory gestures.
The studio is called the Sweat Spot. Its appearance in a 2009 New York Times article about workouts for Los Angeles hipsters had kept me away (perhaps in denial), but I eventually became, and am now, a regular. At first I didn’t know fourth position from fifth, but I instantly appreciated choreography’s distinct jouissance: freedom through constraint. For every class, McNeely picks hicuppy, intricate music with heavy bass, a brooding blend of electronic and hip-hop. But she’s just as likely to play a new track by Rihanna, one of the pop stars who have used McNeely’s choreography onstage and in videos. McNeely likes distinct layers of sound (many options to move to): a rattle, a rhythmic voice, an errant screech.
At each class, she makes the same brisk introductory speech, admonishing us to keep our knees over our toes when we plié. “Don’t pull yourself over, just hang, let the weight of your body bring you down,” she says, as we lower our hands to our toes. The warm-up is always the same, to songs whose melodic synthesizers and beat-dropping crescendos I now know by heart. The moment of rest before the start of the real instruction is always the same as well, and McNeely always says, “don’t fidget.” As a good student (and a rather short person), I learn each month’s combinations from the front row. They’re only about twenty or thirty seconds long.
McNeely likes twisted shapes, tiny hand adjustments, and fast footwork in low pliés, all of which look as bizarre as they feel. She likes sharp, “schizophrenic” contrasts in dynamics: slow, “juicy” body rolls on one count and a convulsive twitch on the next, from countering imagined resistance as though “moving through Jell-O” to collapsing “like dead weight.”
Over time, I’ve become attuned to her embodied vocabulary, internalizing the metaphors she gives us, mostly with a laugh: “wizard hands” are swirling circular gestures, “sparkle fingers” are like Bring It On‘s famous spirit ones, to “snake it up” is to writhe from plié to standing. She also uses language borrowed from technology: a quick inhalation, expanding the chest in a jolt, is a “glitch”; moving side to side like a wave interrupted by locking stops is a “video missing a few frames.”
Often, there are imaginary props: snatch something out of the air, throw it up like it’s a feather and catch it like it’s a rock; contract as if something punched you in the chest; follow the slinky working its way down the stairs. I’ve imagined myself as a statue coming to life then crumbling into ash, a puppet yanked by strings, a doll awakening while my owner is asleep. McNeely asks us to experience our bodies as weight, animated by the music or possessed by the movement. Every week I bask in the endorphins of exercise, practicing a sport I have few other words for besides “cool.” Or else, every week I learn an artwork that evokes a cultural history of labor, sexuality, race, art, and entertainment.
McNeely shuttles between the music industry and the art world. With Jasmine Albuquerque and Kristen Leahy, she is a member of the dance trio WIFE, which has performed in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art among other venues, and has honed a signature style. Animated images (often of New Age symbols and flora and fauna) are projected onto the trio’s bodies as they perform restrained, staccato gestures, as small as the flick of a wrist[pq]McNeely was often praised for her piety as a child, having recognized piety as something one could perform.[/pq].
McNeely contributes the illustrations and animations; the trio collaborates on choreography, costumes, sound, and theme. WIFE’s use of projection mapping allows whatever metaphor might have motivated their movements to appear literal. If, in class, McNeely instructs us to conjure a ball of energy and crumble it in our fingers, in WIFE’s performances the ball exists, a black form that floats above the dancers’ open palms before decomposing down their sides.
In Past Lives (2015), which the trio has performed at various venues, the three dancers perch on plinths. They are costumed in white, with large headpieces that expand their bodies as projection surfaces. Images of three hourglasses line up with their three forms, and as the sand drains, their bodies collapse, evacuated like balloons. Branches snake up their bodies and bloom into flowers. Green, red, and yellow lights bathe each performer as they strike poses to a sequence of bass hits. Red bursts of smoke appear as if from their mouths. Triangles layered on top of each other become pentacles on their chests. Their bodies are X-rayed into skeletons. They grab their breasts where blood begins to spurt.
WIFE’s work is most successful as an exercise in self-imposed constraint: they dance while sitting down, or keep their erect frames completely still in order to direct all attention to a single gesture, illuminated by the projector.
I admit to tiring of WIFE’s allusions. The New Age iconography they employ, borrowed from seemingly every religion, can read as a symptom of an unattached and ahistorical neoliberal spiritualism rather than a real engagement with ritual. One of their most ambitious works is Enter the Cave (2016), which the trio performed at the Hammer Museum. The production was recently expanded into a three-part work with a larger company at a warehouse in the Frogtown neighborhood of Los Angeles. I rolled my eyes at the hooded creatures carrying canes, whose job it was to lead us between three linked performance spaces. Priestly figures perfumed the venue with incense. One trio of dancers, standing atop a platform in a large fabric cone and wearing gauzy white gowns, resembled a three-headed bride, their faces caked in white makeup. They danced impeccably, timing twists of their heads and contortions of their arms like puppets tethered to a single string. I delighted most of all in recognizing them from the real ritual, McNeely’s weekly class, where I gladly trade the animated visualization of her imaginary to embody it myself.
“ENTERTAINMENT IS making art to survive,” McNeely tells me over coffee and a joint. She doesn’t seek value in being called an “artist,” but in being paid for her work-and paid in the kind of currency she can use to buy food. McNeely credits her interest in mysticism to the Catholic Church, whose religious pageantry relies on chants, candles, and timed swings of incense: “shock and awe,” as she puts it. McNeely was often praised for her piety as a child, having recognized piety as something one could perform. She locates her penchant for the life of inanimate objects in the saints, “statues that have power over you.”
McNeely’s was a ballerina’s rebellion. She defected to modern dance, then to hip-hop and burlesque. She declared her initial burlesque performance an “effective accident.” Not knowing how to emulate the swift athletics of other dancers, she slowly, simply crawled across the stage. No one moved. No one talked. The restrained movement captured the audience’s unwavering attention: they were, as she put it, in “a trance.” In the art of seduction, one application of sexuality is control.
Seductive and repulsive, caring and sadistic, manipulated and manipulating, cast as ugly, turned grotesque, sexuality in McNeely’s work is never simple self-expression. It extracts attention. I’m reminded of the eighteenth-century category of the “vagrant” in English law, which criminalized as equals sex-workers, beggars, witches, and entertainers. 1 Vagrancy laws prohibited unauthorized kinds of work that entertainers and witches did, work that involved exerting control. I’m also reminded that the etymology of “entertainment” includes the Latin root for “to hold.”
“How can you catch something if you’re too busy looking at yourself in the mirror? Focus!” McNeely often tells us in class to make our movements smaller. “Don’t yell at me with your body,” or, because movement is a language, “Stop dancing in all caps.” Make it tiny, she offers, modeling a tiny shift in the position of her right hand and her neck, or a fast chain of arms, hands, and elbows-out, in, grab, pull-held close to her body, as if protecting her chest. You want the audience to be “like this,” she always says: “this” looks like a stiff body leaning forward, smoothly, slowly, as if sucked toward the dancer, spellbound, as if dance were something you could fall into like a well.
IN ADDITION TO working as a teacher and an artist, McNeely is a commercial director and choreographer for live performances and music videos. She’s collaborated with pop stars including Eve, Selena Gomez, and Fitz and the Tantrums. For Dillon Francis’s “Candy” video, released last year, two white dancers make a humping duet. Decked out in tattered outfits like zombies, they pierce the air and strike mirrored shapes with their arms. In Yogi and Skrillex’s “Burial” (2015), a black dance troupe, its double-jointed members wearing stockings over their faces, improvise skin-crawling contortions of their shoulders with break-dancing slides and flips. At one point they form a many-armed creature like an Indian god, before, inexplicably, Dennis Rodman chases them away.
In McNeely’s commercial choreography, as in her classes, pedagogy is central. The dancers have to do a routine she invents. Unlike other pursuits in the art world, where learning has taken on astronomical costs and increasing uncertainty of purpose, teaching is built into the structure of choreography itself. And here, there is no hiding art from its market. McNeely’s labor has value in both use and exchange—videography is commercial work (music videos are advertisements for albums and concert sales, establishing a performer’s brand); I pay about fifteen dollars a class.
McNeely choreographed Rihanna in the video for “Sledgehammer,” a song she contributed to the soundtrack for the movie Star Trek Beyond (2016). Rihanna appears in flowing red fabrics on a craggy desert planet beneath a spectacular starry sky. With part of her hair stuck up like a Mohawk, the middle of her face painted with made-up symbols, she hops easily into the trope of the Africanized alien (see: Avatar). Forcing visible tension into her fingertips, she draws her arms together, summoning a swarm of birdlike, CGI spacecraft, which fill up and then fly off the screen. She draws her hands in a circle beside her, and the sand rises to meet her palms. She conjures a ball of light and juggles electricity. At the video’s end she seems to have dissolved into a constellation (a step up, perhaps, from a star).
Rihanna’s circular hand gestures, jagged poses, and tweaked shapes bear McNeely’s influence. She told me that to shoot the video, she and Rihanna established a vocabulary of shapes. As the camera rolled, McNeely danced behind it, offering her movements for Rihanna to mirror, if she chose to. This isn’t merely puppeteering—the exchange was more an improvisational feedback loop.
TO CHOOSE A song for her class[pq]In McNeely’s commercial choreography, as in her classes, pedagogy is central.[/pq], McNeely studies the graphic sound waves presented on Soundcloud, the music streaming service, looking for a dip and a burst. The music is always first, and the dances follow: every single movement has a sound. To make a dance, many choreographers improvise movements, sketching their combinations before fixing the steps. McNeely stares at the empty space of her room, choreographing herself from outside. This visualization process works its way into her movements: bodies appear to be convulsing, possessed, or animated by some external force. McNeely’s choreography involves a kind of bodily ventriloquism.
Multiple ways of thinking about the animated body converge in McNeely’s practice. Her performances with WIFE evoke the religious experience of possession: dancers move as if compelled by an alien presence. But her style is also intelligible in terms borrowed from political economy, the jolting, repetitive movements suggesting the condition of alienated labor. Animated by capital, put to work, the human is less an agent than an instrument, a body, receptive to control.
Of course, political economy is inseparable from histories of gender and race, in which women and black people have been viscously treated as pliable. Highlighting unfunded, unauthorized performance—a legacy of vagrancy—McNeely puts “black street performers” and “strippers” on the “same level as ballerinas.” Mexican, Filipino, and Irish, McNeely identifies jokingly as “dulce de leche.” When I ask her if she’s concerned with the politics of borrowing from black music and dance she answers, true to character, “I use what moves me.”
Black people often stand in our contemporary imagination as figures of what it means to survive total commodification. 2 Does hip-hop function in McNeely’s practice to emphasize this exploration, citing its “underprivileged” source, or am I merely trying to defend my investment, in other words, my implication?
IN HER CLASSES, McNeely promotes stealing. By the end, after drilling us in the routine at least a dozen times, she chooses smaller groups of dancers to perform in the center of the room. (For the record, I was chosen once, and screamed like I was about to thank my mother.) The dancers she picks always variously kill it, meaning they look like they are doing next to nothing. I have come to pick some favorites: a lanky, curly-haired white woman who performs like a creature, a black man whose moves are so sharp it makes the spaces between them seem eternal. The rest of the class is meant to “take” or “translate” the movements that they see. “You learn by trying to copy, it doesn’t matter what the copies look like,” McNeely says. The translations, in my case, feel bleak, or pale, but I press on anyway, knowing that trying on other bodies for size erupts in failures, misalignments, and falsehoods.
McNeely said her style solidified when she was forced, as a teacher, to choreograph dances for nondancers, stripping out ballet’s rigid shapes. She also “surrendered” to her influences-hip-hop street dance, circus, and burlesque-when she “let them in.” Here, McNeely lets us in on a paradox of animation: making the puppet move often has the effect of mechanizing the puppeteer 3 .
Her emphasis on possession and animation amounts to an ambivalence about subjectivity. Her puppetlike movements reflect how the systems and logic of capitalism can be embodied. At the same time, her work shows that defying that logic—creating a gap between individuals and the forces that animate them—doesn’t have to look like escape or transcendence; it can look like doubling down and experimenting with the weird tensions, twitchy resistances, and downright magic within. It is only fitting that I find McNeely’s project most compelling not when it has been codified as “art” but when it appears most like a commodity—a class that I pay for, or a form of entertainment.
At the end of the half-dozen WIFE performances I’ve seen, the stage goes black, and McNeely and her collaborators disappear. There is no curtain call. The audience claps to a closed curtain, to an empty stage, to themselves. But at the end of every class, she takes a bow.
TRACY JEANNE ROSENTHAL is a writer based in Los Angeles.