For Daniel Holt, Honesty Is More Than a Virtue — It’s a Lifestyle


By Alexandra Villarreal

Daniel Holt’s skeptical eyes scanned just beyond his audience as though they were ants and he was a giant. His chest puffed rooster-like, and he could have crowed but growled instead. “You’re good at being bad, you’re bad at being good,” Frank Ocean sang, and Holt’s sturdy posture unsettled into a threatening undulation incited by the cynical turn of his wrist. His feet lingered between first position and parallel in their own confused scurry until finally, his torso flew backwards in three violent episodes. With chilled stoicism, a finger reached the tip of his tongue like the barrel of a gun that had found its victim.

“Make her rob a muphucking bank with no mask on and a rusty revolver.”

The music stopped. Hearts stopped. Holt paused but didn’t stop because he had to bow and prove that it was only a performance, that he would wake up tomorrow and rehearse the same solo for his next gig.

But really that’s a lie, because it wasn’t only a performance. It was Holt served on a tray for your dining pleasure, a slice of his life wedged into your evening like the cheese on a panini. Inside him, Holt harbors all of the innovation, anger and passion that inspired Grump-tastic, the piece that put him on New York City’s dance map. He is his profession, and his profession is him. The studio door doesn’t signify a change in his personality; he is not a dancer at work and a person at play.

Holt numbers among one of the most prized, and most endangered, species in the art world: creators who base their work on reality. It sounds simple, but few artists have ever been able to escape the allure and entrapment of novelty — the sexy notion that you have invented something unique or different. However, especially now when so much has been done already, it’s challenging for professionals to discover newness within their art. During their unyielding — and valid — search for ingenuity, they may overlook the Hobbesian assertion that art is artificial, an object manufactured at the hands of mankind and alien to nature.

There is only so much that exists outside of the natural realm, but one of those things is the human condition. Definitions of the human condition are as complex and nuanced as the phrase is banal and vague. This means that nearly anyone can add to the conversation about questions that are both moot and urgent — who are we, and why are we here?

“I talk to my friends, and we’re young,” Holt explained. “We listen to what we listen to. We watch what we watch. Our youth culture is complex. We like Power Rangers, and we like to go to DJ parties and we like to get drunk and be crazy and be debaucherous. And we like to contemplate, and we like to philosophize. And we like to do all these things. We’re all these complex beings. Yet when I go and see dance concerts, I don’t see that, and if I do it’s in some overly postmodern, aesthetically drab way. It might be funny. It might be ironic. But that’s about it.”

Holt himself could have fallen victim to oversimplification and superficiality if he had never searched for honesty — motions that feel inherent and aren’t fabricated for appearance — in his own choreography. But during his undergraduate education at Ohio State University, Holt started to question the integrity of posterity and its place in an art form that should be ever changing. At 22, he was your typical dancer with black tights and a dance belt. Then, he concluded that it’s almost always better to be atypical.

“I wanted to be heard. I started to rebel. I wanted the way I wanted to move to be realized,” he said.

“It’s not about telling a story or not telling a story, because it’s a false dichotomy anyway,” he continued. “It’s more my body has things to tell, and letting technique, or style or aesthetic stop me from telling those things will never get anybody to come and look at me.”

And so he began to experiment with methods of movement. He knew pedagogy. He could discuss ballet with fluency that would make any Ballets Russes star proud. Still, he couldn’t settle comfortably into a traditional repertory.

One day, he had an epiphany about what hip-hop could offer.

“If I had never done hip-hop, I never would have been that honest onstage,” he explained. “I wouldn’t have a career right now. Nobody would pay attention to me ’cause I never would have tapped into the technique that would have gotten me to let out that part of myself. But I did — that part fits with me.”

In fact, it fit him so well that when he moved to New York City, he soon left the stage to compete in hip-hop battles on the streets. It was his one true love, standing in front of an opponent dancing his heart out. It also proved terrifying — the intensity was potent when he lost the cushiony authority that a venue gives an artist.

“When you’re battling, there’s no agreement [between audience and performer],” he said. “It’s you as a person, as somebody who can dance. If you’re good, you’re going to do well. If you’re not, bye.”

“I lost a lot,” he continued. “I never won. It made me realize what I can’t do. It humbled me.”

When he returned to the stage a few years ago, it welcomed its prodigal son with open arms — and a Fresh Tracks residency at New York Live Arts to develop his new dance style, Grime.

A mix of contemporary and hip-hop, Grime is its own breed. It emerged from an idiosyncratic scenario: Holt was being painted, and as a muse, he found his legs by messing around while posing for the canvas.

“I was there, and I was dancing, and he was just painting me,” Holt said. “And I just started doing whatever, and I started feeling like ‘wow, somebody’s painting me. They like me.’ I suddenly had this confidence in myself. I was noticing what I was doing, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m actually doing some cool stuff.'”

Thus, Grime came onto the scene, and another category of dance with it. Of course, it’s humorous that a style conceived through interweaving categorizations heralds itself as a new one. But Holt borrowed knowledge from hip-hop culture, where dancers aren’t confined by ’70s and ’80s expectations because now there’s Krump, and Popping and House. He named his own technique not for acclaim or recognition, but to respect other genres that weren’t his.

“I’m not trying to be separate, I’m just trying to delineate enough to allow for honesty, to allow for individuality,” he said. “Modern was born how many years ago? And people are still using it as a way to talk about their dance when your dance does not look like the modern of old. Why are we still calling it modern? Why don’t we use a new name, or a name that fits?”

Holt described his vibe as rough and disrespectful, rubbing his fingers together like his dance had a texture, a dynamic. “Some might say it is very aggressive, and it has a lot of bared teeth and open mouths,” he said. “I’m very confrontational with the audience. If I talk to them, I’m usually confronting them in some aggressive way, and I’m being very macho.” Of course, he smiled at the word “macho,” and it was hard to imagine him as aggressive while he strolled around Union Square, his voice as tempered and contemplative as his answers. But he’s right; there is daunting virility to his aesthetic when he sneers like an ape in his white button-down and black drawers.

“Part of why I have so much aggression in my movement and why I’m the way I am is because it’s rebellion. It’s like rock and roll,” he said.

His newest rep, Bermuda, is no exception to his devil-may-care attitude. Set on Holt’s company, Dirt, Bermuda is a dark, brooding piece premiering at the Martha Graham Studio Theater on March 20 and 21. It’s whimsical with its Muppet t-shirts, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Still, it’s not surface entertainment. It’s a journey, Holt said with a laugh, “a journey into fears with a smile.”

Bermuda is the dark place inside of someone that gets left behind, right?” Holt explained. “That dark place where we have parts of ourselves that we won’t own up to, or don’t want to own up to and won’t let out. But they’re constantly there. They’re always trying to talk to us. And when I say talk to us, they’re a part of us. So they’re always expressing themselves through our actions, through our fears, through our loves, through whatever. They’re always informing us, but we don’t always like to acknowledge those parts of ourselves.”

As in all of his work, Holt’s Bermuda seems a study of his being that fuels discussion among others. It’s emotional. It’s vulnerable. It’s haunting. It’s Holt, and it’s Grime. So really, it’s authenticity.

“What dance can do very well is get at the heart of what somebody’s feeling, or what somebody is thinking or sort of the ethos of a person,” Holt said. “Not in a way that is not grounded in reality, right? It’s not just thought. It’s really happening.”