This is the first in a series of reflections on dance outdoors–look for more to come!
The abundance of opportunities to see dance outside is one of the great pleasures of summer in New York. The River to River Festival (continuing through July 15) does not simply transpose the experience of seeing dance in a theatre to an outdoor venue, but asks choreographers to imagine or re-imagine their works in a delightful variety of unlikely spaces around Lower Manhattan. Placing dance in these contexts brings the works into direct contact with the city: offhand comments from unwitting passersby, the sounds of traffic, and commentary from a tour guide on a Circle Line cruise are not simply distractions, but become part of the experience.
I got off the subway at Wall Street on a sunny Thursday afternoon, looking around for some evidence of where Maria Hassabi’s “SHOW” might be happening. The streets and sidewalks were filled with the crush of workers and tourists that is the Financial District, and then suddenly, two women, their gazes locked, sunk down to the sidewalk in a low, intertwined crouch. These two slight performers, dwarfed by the buildings around them, seemed to draw in and focus the dispersed energy of the street as the performance materialized.
Hassabi and dancer Hristoula Harakas were clad in skinny gray jeans and gray sleeveless tops. The outfits accentuated the grayness of the space around them: cobblestone, concrete, and somber buildings. With painstaking control, they moved in and out of positions—standing, lying down, crouching—at a glacial pace, their taut, muscular limbs visibly engaged. The two remained in close, even tense, engagement with each other, never straying more than inches apart, even as their gazes eventually turned outwards.
Staring out at the audience has become a contemporary dance cliché, but in this setting, it took on a stronger valence: there were potential audience members on all sides of the dancers, complicating the power dynamic between performer and audience. The audience was not a single entity that could be directly addressed.
The backdrop for the piece made for a strange juxtaposition: this intimate, focused dance took place on the cobblestone street in front of the New York Stock Exchange, which was draped with a gigantic American flag. I couldn’t help but think of Occupy Wall Street (the imagery of which included, after all, a dancer atop Wall Street’s bull) as these dancers literally occupied this symbolic stretch of sidewalk. I overheard a bit of conversation between businessmen in which one asked another, “What’s the yield?” as he swerved to avoid the performers.
This performance was truly part of the life of the street. Not until a few minutes in did I realize that some of what I took to be background street noise was actually coming from the speakers on either side of the performers. There were a few people who sat and watched the performance in its entirety, but most stopped only for a few minutes, intrigued. There is real value in this casual availability of performance: the piece presented in this way demands little of its audience (inviting us to merely pause and look for a moment), but tempts them with the promise of so much more if they do choose to engage, however briefly. This format also offers the potential for a spontaneous sense of community around a performance: I had pleasant conversations with a few audience members during the piece, something that never happens in the dark, isolated silence of a theatre.
After a final standing pose, the two dancers turned and walked off down the street, as if merging into the flow of pedestrian traffic. They had emerged out of this hubbub, and concluded by returning to it. The yield? Impossible to quantify, but I left feeling stirred by this fleeting materialization of a performance within the gray chaos.