Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2019–2020 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of A Fire On Venus by Brittney Chantele, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Emma Vescio and Ariel Xiu. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
Musician and artist Brittney Chantele’s album A Fire On Venus receives the big stage treatment with the addition of Kaylin Horgan’s choreography and a fantastic seven-piece band. Taking on the theme of queer love, Chantele and her support team rip through 17 songs, allowing Horgan’s storytelling style of choreography to enhance the nuance of Chantele’s art, while creating more entry points into the music. The performance kicks off the seventh season of the New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supports Arts performance series, which provides emerging artists access to space and tools slightly beyond their reach. While still a work-in-progress, Chantele’s performance largely succeeds in lifting an already strong record, produced by Remy Vega and Treble NLS, to a higher level that could reach different audiences.
Surveying the current musical landscape, there is pressure to up the theatrics in musical performances. From Beyonce’s monumental Lemonade visual album to Tierra Whack’s brilliantly executed Instagram-ready Whack World to Simon Reynolds’ recently formalized definition of Conceptronica, which places recent electronic music in an art world discourse, artists are adding layers of production to the once-simple album format. While A Fire On Venus is a major step in Chantele’s creative evolution, the production retains a casualness that mirrors her music.
The band opens with the laid back album opener “Flaws & Imperfections.” The song captures the neo-soul vibes that you might remember from the late 90s/early 00s, from Erykah Badu or Jill Scott. Dancers emerge from the wings. The band is tight. And Chantele cruises through the chorus-verse-chorus form with ease. It’s a gently devastating anthem, “You’re always saying no one’s perfect / And you haven’t figured it out / Then you proceed to wipe all my tears / And fill them with doubt.”
From the stage, Chantele introduces the band members. There will be no fourth wall tonight.
Set and costume designer Leah Pecoraro-Eddy, known for their surrealistic room-sized installations, use of mixed media and vivid, clashing materials, opts for restraint when it comes to designing Chantele’s world. Stage design is minimal. A few balloons dot the stage. The exposed brick wall at the back of the New Hazlett Theater stage reads slightly industrial. Lighting designer Antonio Colaruotolo floods the stage in pinks and blues, reds and magentas — the cumulative effect recalling Janet Jackson’s “The Pleasure Principle” video, in a good way.
The costuming is effective, mixing futuristic and biological looks, riffing on African jewelry with hoops and intricate knits. Later in the performance, Chantele emerges with a second look, her arms wrapped in serpentine gold and red material — an armor of sorts.
Like those megastars, Chantele knows the importance of branding. Stage monitors are slyly hidden with embroidery hoops displaying the three wavy lines that constitute Chantele’s logo. Between-song banter falls somewhere between press release and confessional, but stays on brand. There is little ambiguity about what these songs are about. They are support mechanisms for Chantele and anyone in earshot that may be going through the same struggles.
The structure of the performance, whether intentional or not, feels tailored for “Instagram time,” where new ideas shift at a quick clip to keep up with dwindling attention spans and unquenchable appetites for content. As Chantele is a pop artist, this shifting of events aligns with the generally accepted length of a pop song — about two to three minutes. But even with frequent stops and starts, the pacing never feels chaotic. The cohesiveness of the music with its jazz harmonies and relaxed grooves retains a homogeneity that places the performances in the realm of variations on a theme instead of spazzed list of partially consumed thoughts.
Translated from the record, the music breathes. Quantized beats are replaced with the ebb and flow of bassist Daniel Rouse and drummer Jonathan Lightfoot, both occasionally hinting at that D’Angelo “drunk beat.” Backing vocalists Morgan Hawkins and Danielle Maggio (who recently performed and produced the first recorded song from funk legend Betty Davis since 1979) shine, bringing Chantele’s words to life with tight harmonies. Blending with those harmonies is trumpeter Katie Brown, who as the lone horn adds tonal color to the arrangements.
But the song structures from the album are largely retained, which results in predicable verse-chorus-verse-chorus-ending vamp or hook-verse-hook sequences that are in place for nearly every song. Given the caliber of musicians involved, there is an urge to hear them rip it up, and by the last song, they finally do, but the energy plateaus around the evening’s two-thirds mark.
That said, the structural monotony may actually be purposeful. The collection of songs is billed as being about queer love, but most of the songs address unrequited love, imbalanced expectations, and confusion. On “Commitment,” Chantele spits, “You were so persistent / Now you all indifferent / Said you still lovin’ ya ex / Damn now I’m getting distant.” The hook on “Preoccupied” goes, “I don’t know what you’ve been through / All I know is I like you / But you’re a little preoccupied / I can see it in your eyes.” On “Get Over Yourself,” Chantele corrects, “They call me a savage / Cause I protect my assets / Quick to check your baggage / Before it hits my address.” Even the moments of relationship magic are distant — “Facetime” discusses the magic of connecting via a camera phone.
The monotony of searching for love, dealing with disappointment, self-adjusting, and reaffirming one’s desires can be a tedious, frustrating task. In the way that A Fire On Venus is structured, the music, while very enjoyable and well-executed, withholds a celebratory breakthrough in the same way that struggles in love, taken at a macro view, can withhold satisfaction.
Largely absent, moments of ecstasy and lust and unnaturally manic happiness — those irrational and irrepressible feelings that crop up in the pursuit of love — were saved until the one-song encore. During that song, the band picks up the energy and Raven Reid delivers a stunning solo dance. Even then, the song was preceded by a message that relocation to the lobby was an option if sexualized content was not your thing. It is odd that in a performance about queer love, references to queer sex are pushed to a corner and preceded by a warning.
The major addition to Chantele’s craft is the team of dancers — Miriah Auth, Chandler Bingham, Raven Reid, and Calina Womack — under the leadership of choreographer and dancer Kaylin Horgan. Responding to the challenge of choreographing 17 separate pieces with a similar tone, length, and theme, Horgan varies dancer combinations and density of movement, utilizes the space on the stage and in the rafters, and changes the dimension of the body by using a backlit screen to create silhouettes of the dancers. Horgan incorporates hip-hop dancing — a lot of touch and go and rewind/replay movements — staggered solos, social dance, and some balletic, weightless patterns. The result is a unified choreographic style that also provides room for the dancers’ personalities to shine through.
All together, the various elements that make up A Fire On Venus elevate the original music into a polished, fully formed event. There is care taken to translate the message of the songs into the choreography and costumes. As a first iteration, the performance is progressive in message but, possibly, a bit conservative in execution. There is a lot of dormant energy bubbling under the surface. The energy and provocativeness of the encore may provide a example of how to ratchet up the tension of the performance to match the tension of songs’ lyrics.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Emma Vescio is a curator and arts writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelors of Arts in History of Art and Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research involves relationships with objects, intimacy, queer theory, definitions, personal archives, and time. Vescio has curated shows at Bunker Projects, the Silver Eye Lab, PULLPROOF Studio, Lucky Cloud, G1|CW, Phosphor Project Space, and The Union Hall.
Ariel Xiu is a freelance dancer, artist, and educator whose works encompass live performances, paintings, drawings, holography, videos, collage, and sculpture. Currently residing in Pittsburgh, they have a great interest in Eastern thought, horrorcore, showbiz, and discussing literature.