DanceView Times, New York edition
Site Specific Dance
Performance—Performances in Public Spaces:
Dance and architecture are strange bedfellows. One is as mobile as the other is solid. But when creative artists inhabit a space, they open it up to new interpretations, helping us discover nooks and crannies that we had not noticed before. Stephan Koplowitz accomplished this in Fenestrations, made for Grand Central station, which I saw in 1999, although it was first performed in 1987.
Other highlights of site-specific work in New York include Sham Mosher’s 1997 Shadows Tearing in an open lot in Brooklyn. Both of these works were commissioned by Elise Bernhardt when she directed the organization Dancing in the Streets. From 1998 to May 2004, Bernhardt served as executive director of The Kitchen and she hosted a discussion about site-specific work there on June 16. Panelists included Koplowitz, Martha Bowers, Tamar Rogoff and Mary Ellen Strom.
In Bernhardt’s words, these artists are “people who play a role in inserting culture into common space. An array of creators whose work is about political will, who enliven spaces, who walk out on thin limbs, not where the walls protect them, but rather who live in contact with the people. These panelists represent among the finest of site-artists who change the world for culture.”
The range of projects created by this foursome includes community-driven, personally-driven and aesthetically-driven accomplishments. Bowers’ insertions into the Red Hook waterfront have turned a desolate space into a cultural destination that annually hosts the Red Hook Waterfront Arts Festival. Rogoff’s trip to Belarus to learn about her ancestors turned into The Ivye Project in 1994 which commemorated and celebrated personal histories and rituals lost during the holocaust. Strom’s Geyser Land put the audience on a train running through the Bozeman Pass in Montana as performers and images decorated the places outside the riders’ windows.
Each panelist spoke candidly and showed excerpts of their work. Ideas were riveting: in the hands of artists who think outside the box, the confines of a site (or box-car) become places of infinite possibility.
Koplowitz said “I will not take on a commission or do a project unless the relationship between seeing the work and the work itself is clearly defined.” This seems obvious, but is crucial when an audience is not stationary, not neatly placed in seats in front of a proscenium stage. Koplowitz solved this brilliantly in his Fenestrations: the dancers were nestled in corridors behind the station’s massive interior windows. They danced on aisles of space approximately three or four feet wide, but were perfectly visible to the thousands of commuters and spectators below them.
Each dancer’s simple movements, magnified by 72 performers, created an almost religious experience: the dancers became a fluid stained-glass window of shifting shapes and patterns. The scene called to mind Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, awesome in its scale and impact. In fact site specific work holds several ideas in common with film: the intersection of site and performer is like that of a set and character, each informing and affecting the other.
Bernhardt said she originally asked Lucinda Childs to stage her Available Light in Grand Central, but Childs declined, explaining “I could never ask my dancers to perform on glass floors.” Koplowitz paraphrased her answer: “I don’t do windows,” and his Fenestrations sealed his reputation as a site-specific specialist. As he said at The Kitchen: “I learned a lot with Fenestrations about how to make work of this scale.” He currently has a new site-specific performance, The Grand Step Project, on view on staircases around New York City until June 28.
Bowers spoke to the impact of site-specific work on particular communities. She began rather beautifully with the idea: “When conditions are sufficient, things manifest.” Bowers’ projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn symbolize the type of “powerful seeds that get planted” when an artist dedicates herself to a site. “I love abandoned relics of industrial high life: ex-factories, ex-coffee plants, ex-train stations,” Bowers explained. “Red Hook got the raw end of the deal. It was a place known for crime, drugs, poverty, unemployment. It was hard to sell to an audience. You could get mugged in Red Hook, you could drop a body in Red Hook, but you couldn’t get an audience in Red Hook.” Bowers has changed this thinking, and her advice to future site-specific artists—“be flexible”—sounds like something she has learned and mastered with experience.
Videographer Strom occupied a unique place on the panel: in her creation with Ann Carlson called Geyser Land the audience boarded a train that traveled 25 miles through the Bozeman Pass. Through the train’s windows, observers saw images of horses galloping across hills and live reconstructions of historical photographs that documented the building of the railroad. Listening to Strom describe the project made me curious to experience the dislocation of being within a train watching images of how the train was constructed.
Praise of Folly
Moving from theory to reality, I went to two site-specific pieces in the week that followed this discussion at The Kitchen. The first, In Praise of Folly, was three hours long and I left after two. Inside of a building on Worth Street in lower Manhattan, Peculiar Works Project (PWP) used the story of Don Quixote —and 100 artists—to create scenes within rooms of the office building.
I missed the connection between site and show that the artists at The Kitchen had investigated so thoroughly. Why did PWP choose the 13th floor of this building? What did the choice of scenes have to do with the choice of rooms? I was very confused about who the characters were, what they were doing, and why they were screaming at, fighting with or fondling each other. After two hours I craved some of the fresh air that I could see through the windows.
A very different project was created by Andrea Haenggi and presented as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s series “SiteLines.” Haenggi took the idea of a corner -- and the feeling of being cornered -- and created an hour long show in an abandoned cigar store on Wall Street. The bi-level space with its pine green walls and stacks of cigar boxes became a surreal environment: functional, but abandoned. The piece, called “under whose control,” was performed by Haenggi with four gifted women: Einy Aam, Michele Jongeneel, Djamila Moore, and Tori Sparks.
Their squatting, balancing and rolling movements gave them the look of elves —aided by their felt-like hats and patch-work costumes. It was fascinating to watch their gorgeously designed shapes pressed into unusual spaces. One dancer explored the revolving door: swirling around many times as it created its own score. Throughout the piece the women’s movement guided the audience through the emptied store: crouching and shuffling with backwards steps, they parted the crowd that watched them.
I loved the moment when they climbed the stairs, again moving backwards, as the score gave us sounds of shoes on steps somewhere else. The piece was not of the grand scale of Koplowitz’s “Fenestrations.” Nor was it a community-changing performance like Bowers’ Red Hook shows. The sign reading “Humidor” located us in a cigar store, but the movement of the dancers—both committed and unusual—was other-worldly. Haenggi offered us a unique, but fleeting, escape from reality.
Photo: under whose control, choreographed by Andrea Haenggi.