Let's Take it Outside

March 23, 2008

Last June, audiences on the Stone Arch Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis absorbed a 360-degree perspective of Marylee Hardenbergh’s Solstice River. People of all ages, from children to grandparents, ran from one side of the bridge to the other in search of dancers high up on adjacent buildings or waving streamers from the jetty below. After white-robed women enacted a mingling-of-waters ceremony on the lock and dam, the sun began to set, filling the sky with color.


“When you do site-specific dance,” Hardenbergh says, “you open yourself up to these fabulously serendipitous moments of incredible beauty that you simply can’t plan for.”


California choreographer Deidre Cavazzi agrees. Last July, she performed A Sonnet for the Sea aboard the Brig Pilgrim, a replica of an 1825 tall ship moored in Dana Point Harbor, in what has become an annual tradition for the last three years. The performance included a jig on the dock, and a duet between a woman in bowsprite netting and a man on a floating platform 30 feet below. “An amazing layer of fog settled in the harbor, making the whole performance magical,” she recalls. “With site work, there are so many variables you can’t control, which makes every performance completely different.”


With outdoor site work, weather is only one of those variables. Indoors, people are another variable—and they can be more erratic than the weather. Last year, during a particularly spirited moment of Cavazzi’s Mightier Than the Sword: Dancing Volumes for Banned Books Week at a college library in Mission Viejo, a security guard—uninformed about the performance—pulled a gun on a member of the technical crew.


Months, even years, of planning go into the creation of site-specific work, from obtaining permits, insurance, and permissions, to researching and exploring the site, to making and rehearsing the piece. But it’s the thrill of experiencing the work as it happens—with or without natural or human influence—that leaves an indelible impression.


“Site-specific dance gets people into places they wouldn’t ordinarily have gone,” says choreographer Debra Loewen of Milwaukee. Last year her Wild Space Dance Company, in Place and Occasion, explored the phenomenon of 1930s dance marathons in the dilapidated historic Turner Ballroom. In her Vanishing Line, dancers arrived by yacht, disembarked on piers, and navigated Lakeshore State Park’s beaches and rocky terrain before disappearing into the night.


“People tell me they return to the sites where they’ve seen my work and have a memory that’s special,” Loewen says. “Site-specific dance alerts them to look at the site in a different way. It reminds them there’s more to see than they first imagined.”


Hardenbergh states this experience another way: “Site-specific dance creates a sense of place in viewers that’s not as fleeting or ephemeral as the performance itself; it’s a lasting impression.”


So what is site-specific dance? The term is used to describe almost any dance performance not occurring on a concert stage, from Anna Halprin and Trisha Brown’s outdoor experiments in the 1960s and ’70s, to the multidecade, on-site oeuvres of Loewen, Heidi Duckler, Joanna Haigood, Stephan Koplowitz, and Ann Carlson. But the one element that sets apart true site-specific work is a commitment to place. “For me, a work is site-specific when everything, including your inspiration, comes from the location so that the material itself couldn’t be done somewhere else,” says Loewen. “It’s not about choreographing something in the studio, then trimming the edges to make it fit someplace else,” she continues. “It might involve contouring and forging interesting relationships between the body and the walls or the hallways, or even the history of the place.”


It may also involve moving the audience throughout the site to view different parts of the performance from various perspectives. As Cavazzi says, “The movement vocabulary changes with each location, as do audience vantage points. This is a fantastic challenge as a choreographer. Each new space opens new ways of looking at dance and movement, and each experience changes my preconceived ideas about space.”


Before deciding on the vantage points for her emotionally resonant Sleeping With the Ambassador (2003), Duckler and her collaborators “mapped the site” of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel to determine where the audience would walk, stand, or participate. The performers practically “lived at the site,” she says, while generating material, such as choreography around and on furniture, stairways, door openings, and columns. By creating relationships between the dancers’ bodies and the building, Duckler adds, she was able to “physicalize the space.”


Noémie Lafrance, who sent her dancers skidding across the stainless-steel curves of Frank Gehry’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in upstate New York in Rapture (work in progress) last year, has her own take on the physicality she requires. “I’m interested in using my physical knowledge to respond to a space in an instinctual, sensorial way,” she says. By putting her dancers in rigging, Lafrance has created a choreography that “describes the curves, slopes and topography of the building to generate an orchestration of rhythms and patterns in response to the architecture.”


The creation of site-specific dance often has a positive effect on the non-dancers who watch or participate in the work. When creating A Sonnet for the Sea with her ArchiTexture Dance Company, Cavazzi says she attended ship-crew meetings “to win them over.” She eventually incorporated several crew members into the piece. Also, during on-board rehearsals, she noticed some passersby kept returning to observe the piece and talk with her. By the performance time, she says, “They’d developed a sense of ownership in the piece because they’d watched it being created over a period of months.”


For the dance world at large, one advantage of on-site work is that it often attracts audience members who have never seen a dance performance. “Passersby or even people who are too intimidated to attend a dance concert are drawn to my performances,” says Hardenbergh.


To some site-specific choreographers, their greatest role is as a community builder. Loewen says collaboration is essential to realizing her works. Not only does a site-specific dance bring together dancers, place, and audience, it also enlightens the city administrators, local organizations and on-site work crews who make such work possible about the transformative power of dance.


As the Brig Pilgrim crew told Cavazzi after the first Sonnet performance, “This ship has always been so beautiful to us, but we never imagined you could make her more beautiful by bringing her alive with dance. We’ll never be able to look at the ship the same way.”


Camille LeFevre is the dance critic for the
Minneapolis Star Tribune and an independent scholar of site-specific dance.


Photo by Bentley Cavazzi, Courtesy ArchiTexture.