|Into the Pool
by Tom Phillips
“Public Works” used to refer to huge construction and reclamation projects for the welfare and enjoyment of the masses, back in the days when America was investing in that sort of thing. Today it’s more likely to refer to public works of art. But now, in New York, choreographer Noemie LaFrance is making an audacious bid to combine the two, with a work of art that is also a reclamation project for a lost public facility.
The site is a giant and grandiose public swimming pool in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, built by the WPA during the Depression, a pool that could hold nearly seven thousand swimmers on a summer day. Since 1983 the McCarren Park Pool has been dry, fenced off from the neighborhood and left to decay. But last week, for the first time in a generation, it was again full of people, full of life.
The program for “Agora” lists about 50 women, men and children as dancers, but it often seems like more. Traveling individually, in pairs and in packs, they run, ride bikes, skate, kick and dribble balls, tumble and fight, and most of all dance all over the 50 thousand foot square space. The dancing is of various types: modern, street, and circus predominate. Some of it is expert, most of it ordinary, but all of it is fiercely energetic. The dancers also interact with the audience, who sit with their legs dangling over the ledge of the pool. Most of the time there is no one focal point, with the notable exception of two stunning solos by Reba Mehan. She opens the piece by tiptoeing as if on a tightrope along the crack in the middle of the pool, all the way down the 50-yard line of the football-field-sized space. Near the end, she enters in a red dress with a 50-yard train that unfurls behind her, carrying two suitcases full of oranges which she spills all over the floor.
“Agora” has no plot, but it has a definite progression. The atmosphere is dark and menacing at the beginning. The soundtrack is flecked with industrial noises, gunfire and bird calls, and the dancers are isolated, running alone through the vast emptiness of the pool. The feeling is “Agoraphobia,” the fear of public places. We wonder if we are going to be subjected to a whole evening of this. But then, slowly, the isolation and desolation begin to compete with something else, as the dancers begin to interact with each other, and with the audience. (Can you watch this suitcase, asks one performer. Would you whisper “I love you” in my ear, pleads another.) They work in pairs, then in big groups. Sound morphs into music. A woman steps into the spotlight for a wild flamenco solo, backed by a motley crowd of imitators and admirers. The progression is not simple or direct. There are elements of isolation and despair throughout the piece: a homeless guy with a shopping cart full of electronic gear, a lone woman with a broken umbrella, a man who hauls himself the length of the pool while pushing a TV, carrying a lamp and dragging an easy chair, pausing to read a newspaper but never looking up or around. Still, something is changing in the space that we now feel part of.
In the end, the center of the pool is brightly lit, and the performers gather in two diagonal lines, like the two sides of a narrow street, a bazaar. They are shouting, hawking shoeshines, umbrellas, birdcages, children’s books, a hookah, and the “world’s biggest pear!” This is the Agora, the Greek word for the market place, the center of everything. Slowly, the audience catches on. One by one and two by two, we jump off the ledge and join the hubbub in the new city, a place of light where there was darkness, an experience of love where just an hour and a half ago we felt fear and suspicion.
“Agora” is as much a political as an artistic feat. Noemie LaFrance says, cryptically, “I don’t get no for an answer, I just get yes,” but we know how hard it is to get that “yes” from a system that doesn’t pamper young choreographers. In this case she managed to wrangle support from New York City, New York State and the federal government, as well as several foundations and many local groups. She did it by promising not just a show, but a real step toward the revitalization of a neighborhood, her own adopted neighborhood in Brooklyn.
LaFrance is originally from Quebec, which may account for the strong Cirque-ish element in her choreography. If I had a quibble about the show, it would be that some of her “special apparitions”such as a sequined lady spinning multiple hula hoopsdon’t always quite mesh with the grittier local elements. It’s a different kind of energy, a different relation to the audience.
In the end, energy is what Agora puts on display, and celebrates. But all the energy expended in the pool is a metaphor for LaFrance’s larger projectto use human energy to transform a public space, to bring a part of the city back to life. LaFrance delivers on her promise. And it’s a welcome message, at a time when the nation is suddenly discovering again the need for people and government to work together on a large scale.
“Agora” continues through October 1st at the McCarren Pool in Brooklyn. You have to expend some energy to get there. But if you care about art, and the city, don’t miss it.
Volume 3, No. 34