Cheryl Cornacchione and Nicole Scatchell
Cheryl Cornacchione and Nicole Scatchell Credit: Carl Wiedemann

A few years ago, I inadvertently joined a mosh pit during a Suburbs show in Minneapolis. At first I didn’t get it: I’d been on crowded dance floors before, but this one was out of hand. I got mad and started shoving back. Then I realized how fun it was, unleashing anger, being part of the wave. It was a group effort. Sometimes others even protected me.

Atalee Judy gets moshing. In the early 80s, at the age of 12—a few months after her father died—she ran away from her Texas home and found a new one in Lower Manhattan’s hardcore punk scene, befriending the Cro-Mags. Years later, after training in dance, Judy devised her bodyslam technique, grown in the petri dish of the mosh pit. Less like dance than like the Hawks crashing into the boards, it’s been her calling card ever since she founded Breakbone DanceCo., now BONEdanse, in 1997.

Perhaps more to women than to men, bodyslam is liberating; men have plenty of opportunities to channel their aggression, even celebrate it in a sport like hockey. Women don’t, and Judy gets that too. But over the years, she’s sometimes minimized or retreated from bodyslam to try other choreographic approaches, even as her subjects remained death-defying: mortality, the Holocaust, child sexual abuse.

BONEdanse’s new 80-minute Bully.punk.riot is more abstract than such pieces, but also more coherent. Focusing on the potential violence and unity of the herd, it not coincidentally launches a full bodyslam assault, using vintage punk tracks and an ensemble of six vibrant young women plus Judy. Choreographed by her and performers Melissa Ganser and Megan Klein, with contributions from the other dancers, this noisy, unsettling piece meditates on the act of taking sides, ultimately embracing that act’s underlying humanity.

Humor and satire lighten the mix. Five short transitional sections in the first half—inspired by Mark Earls’s 2009 marketing book Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature—riff on consumer “choices.” In “Mac.VS.pc.,” the rallying cries of Apple and Microsoft fill the air. In “Line.TEST,” four dancers hold identical red tubing between a hand and foot to demonstrate the “differences” a market researcher insists are there. Judy’s gladiatorial “Futball.DUET” features two horsey ballerinas prancing in platform heels, sporting football pads as tutus. Their preferred mode of combat is pelvic thrusting, which produces a furious clacking.

Such tidbits highlight the violence of the three choreographed sections, knit together by a few rhyming images. Ganser looks at religious groupthink in the opening, “Bully,” whose ominous sound design includes voices shouting “Jesus!” and “Hallelujah!” But “Bully” also suggests any brutalization of one by the many. Ganser can be a bit heavy-handed, but she also comes up with some genius moves. A dancer looking to the skies, then being supported by others in a backward fall, suggests immersion baptism—and the comfort of group acceptance. But when the dancer gets ambushed and decked, it seems a brutal takeover of the spiritual impulse.

Klein’s “Riot,” which ends the first act, repeats Ganser’s nightmarish image of wolves circling a lone victim but turns more violent. Judy dives headfirst to the floor, for instance, landing on her elbows, coughing from what appears to be tear gas. The dancers kick and shove, turning on one another, until finally Ganser, the bullied one here, flings herself onto a platform and begins the real violence: beating on several eerily headlike globes until they explode into sparks of juice and flesh.

That’s a tough act to follow, but Judy manages it in “Punk,” which makes up most of the second half. The single most kinetic—and moving—episode of Bully.punk.riot, it’s powered by punk-rock classics and an onslaught of bodyslam, softened by Judy’s monologue on mosh pit etiquette. “I learned pride, morals, loyalty,” she says. If people were elbowed, ribbed, booted—it was consensual, nothing personal. If someone went down, others hauled that person up. Where the dark first act captures our superdivided, corporate-driven society, the nostalgic second recalls grass-roots communities, unmolested by marketers.

Punk music makes me laugh—it’s so fast, furious, and tantrumlike—and Judy brings that impulse out, especially at the devil-may-care end of “Punk,” set to the New Model Army’s “I Love the World.” Yet the finale isn’t all sweetness and light. Judy alludes to the terrors of life on the edge (the Dead Kennedys’ refrain is “Tomorrow you’re homeless / Tonight it’s a blast”). She plays the Young Gods’ smoky rendition of Kurt Weill’s autumnal “September Song” during her solo. Taking a perilously low, martial arts-style crouch—while her fingers curl delicately—Judy is both strong and gentle, masculine and feminine, embodying both personal and cultural paradoxes.