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Site-Specific Stirrings: Dance in New York Comes Out of Hibernation

During summer in New York, there are no limits to where dance can happen. For me, some highlights of the past month have been site-specific works that transform the city into a stage—popping up on rooftops and stairwells, spilling out from storefronts onto sidewalks, and roving through gardens at night.


As the average pedestrian spends more and more time looking down—eyes fixed on smartphone in hand—Trisha Brown, that legendary scaler of buildings, is still giving us reason to look up. Earlier this month, she revived her 1971 Roof Piece, performed by nine dancers, each perched atop a different roof (or other raised edifice) in the vicinity of the High Line, the elevated park that runs along Manhattan’s west side. (While the piece made an appearance at MoMA last January, this was its first outdoor presentation since the ’70s.)


From the park’s southernmost end, you could, with a 360-degree scan of the space, spot all of the performers, in their bright red slacks and shirts, enacting what might be described as a game of gestural telephone. One dancer began a chain of improvised motions, which a second dancer reproduced, followed by a third, and so on; halfway through, a new leader took over. Once you figured out who was in the lead, you could have fun charting the lag time between the first dancer and the ninth, who were separated by a distance of several blocks and seven interpreters of the same movement.


The blustery weather on the evening I attended (June 11) made even the gentlest actions—swooping arms, swaying torsos, a half-hearted running-in-place—seem like intrepid feats. The dancers stood their ground in the wind, red silhouettes resolute against the grey sky. There were other poetic tensions: the vastness of the performance space, next to the intimate act of observing and mirroring one other person; the infrastructure of a rooftop—boilers, chimneys, pipes—juxtaposed with the supple machinery of the human form. The dancers relayed every action with such specificity, such deliberate focus, that you felt certain they were transmitting some decipherable message—if only you could crack the code. But with Brown, the message is often right there on the surface, profound in its simplicity: Here are some options for what the body in space can do. 


The performance duo robbinschilds (Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs) has a similar knack for grabbing the attention of busy New Yorkers. On a warm Friday evening last month, a passerby on University Place between 10th and 11th Streets would have been startled by the neon colors swishing past the window of JF & SON, a clothing boutique just south of Union Square. Even I was startled, and I had the advantage of knowing that something (other than shopping) would be going on inside. That something was Portable Arc, a dance/fashion collaboration (or what the press release called a “structured improvisational happening of trans-genre wearables that celebrate the artists’ commitment to rainbow living”) by robbinschilds and designer Travis Boyer.

 

 

When I arrived, three dancers were using strips of brightly colored ribbon to outline each other’s bodies on the floor, accompanied by a score that involved women’s voices, in blasé tones, reciting colors of the rainbow. A crowd of about 30 people had managed to squeeze inside. Others peered through the window from the street, catching what glimpses they could of the pedestrian, understated movement, with its shades of relaxed ballet. Eventually four of the dancers (Robbins, Childs, Rebecca Brooks, and Sarah White-Ayon) exited onto the sidewalk, walking briskly around in linear and arcing patterns, while exploring variations on the theme of a swinging arm. They threw in the occasional dramatic pose but kept their matter-of-fact cool; this is just as ordinary, they seemed to say, as the stoplights switching from red to green down the block, or the yellow cabs hurtling by.


That sense of cool was only intensified by the fluorescent hues and breezy textures of their “trans-genre wearbles,” which Boyer designed with “today’s movement artist in mind.” (Not the movement artist’s pocketbook, though; after the show, the pants, skirts, tops, and head wraps went on sale for between $530 and $820.) He also had in mind some artists from a different era—Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi, whose collaboration for Appalachian Spring served as his jumping-off point. Imagine drapey, translucent, above-the-knee riffs on Noguchi’s frontier-inspired costumes—with pleats here, ruffles there—and you’ll have an idea of the thoroughly modern collection that Boyer dreamed up. While the performance was more laissez-faire than anything in the Graham repertoire, it held something of her pioneering spirit: today’s young Americans charting their own frontiers, weaving their vision into the fabric of the city, finding productive new ways to marry commerce and art.


Rather than making use of the city, Yanira Castro’s Paradis provided an oasis from it. A companion piece to her 2010 Wildnerness, presented by Dance Theater Workshop, the work took place at two locations inside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—the Desert House and, by way of a long meandering walk, the Cherry Esplanade.

 


The whole journey was sublime. You didn’t just stumble upon this event, as you might have with Roof Piece or Portable Arc; you were guided through it, but not without some wonderfully disorienting moments.


From the Visitor Center, the audience set out into the garden, pausing just within sight of the Desert House. One by one, we were invited to approach its glass walls. Inside, a lone performer, Peter Schmitz, clad in a white suit and white face paint, circled the cacti and other spiky vegetation, making his way along a dusty path with staccato steps; this was a parched paradise, not the lush place that we associate with Eden. Schmitz’s mime-like gestures quivered with the crazed tension of a mad scientist. His frenzy escalated as he plucked an invisible apple from an invisible branch and tasted the invisible fruit—first one, then another, then another—voracious in his thirst.


During this episode, piano notes trickled out from a walkie talkie strapped to the belt of a guard standing nearby. Soon, we would discover the source of the sound. As we arrived at the Cherry Esplanade, a vast grassy field lined with cherry trees and lit by four enormous floodlights, we found Michael Dauphinais seated at a piano, making music alone in the dark.


For a long time, we didn’t know where to look—Castro doesn’t like to let her audiences get too comfortable—until eight tiny white figures appeared at the far end of the lawn, undulating filaments aglow in the night. Running, lunging, bounding, they closed in on us, crossing whatever imaginary line had separated us from them. More like human beings now, less like ghosts, they led us underneath the cherry trees—each dancer instructing a small group of spectators to “Watch me, only me”—then backed away and undressed, stripping down to flesh-colored undergarments. In the distance, a performer and an audience member shared an apple, passing it back and forth. Later, zooming in again, we were invited to witness, from just a few feet’s distance, the intricacies of an intensely slow, entwining duet.


At a certain point, the dancers began to sing:

    “In the sun, in the snow, if I lead then would you follow?
    Who is right, who is wrong, to be saving their own lives?”

Was it before or after they ran away, disappearing into the night, that Dauphinais invited us to sing along? Either way, we were left alone to carry on the tune—continue the performance without the performers, interpret the message without the messengers, and do what we would with the weight of that responsibility. We kept on singing, for a while at least. Whatever this strange paradise was, far removed from civilization, it now belonged to us as much as them.

 

—Siobhan Burke

sburke@dancemedia.com

 

Photos, top to bottom: Rebecca Brooks (left) and Sarah White-Ayon in Portable Arc, photo by Jessica Williams, courtesy JF & SON; Rebecca Brooks (foreground) in Portable Arc, photo by Jessica Williams, courtesy JF & SON; Peggy H. Cheng, Luke Miller, and Shayla-Vie Jenkins in Paradis, photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy DTW.

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