I’ve touched on the importance of public art in a previous post, and the summer onslaught continues with the New York City Parks’ Dance Out! initiative, a series of site specific dance performances around the city (site specific dance around America will soon be finding it’s way to SundayArts in Great Performance’s Dance in America: Wolf Trap). This one combines two cool things: Free art that reaches people in their (common) backyard and site-specific performance. The parks’ series, copresented with the Joyce Theater, focuses on three dances, which will travel to the boroughs—and not just to flagships like Central Park or Prospect Park, but to less obvious spaces like St. Mary’s Park in the Bronx or Staten Island’s South Beach boardwalk. Of the three, Michael Schumacher’s Dans le jardin (in the garden) seems to make the most use of its environment, so the work should change slightly depending on where it’s performed.
And like every summer, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines series offers free site-specific dance and dance-theater in the financial district. I’m particularly looking forward to Hostile Takeover by Richard Move’s MoveOpolis in August (Move made his name with someone else’s when he recreated Martha Graham dances in full Martha drag realness). The program is described thus: “Feminine beauty is placed upon a pedestal (literally) in the midst of the male-dominated world of high finance, with stunningly costumed, Butoh-inspired female dancers occupying six different locations.” Yowsa! I’m sure I’ll get back to it next month.New York actually is a fantastic city for site-specific art, and I have great memories—the word experience actually feels more appropriate—from some shows. Seeing a performance in a theater is one thing, but seeing it in a space designed for something else is altogether different. Over the years I’ve seen plays and dances in the Masonic Hall’s Grand Lodge Room (Marathon Dancing), the Bethesda Fountain’s public restrooms (Ladies & Gents), the East River Park amphitheater (The Trojan Women), Pier 25 (Stonewall: Night Variations), a municipal garage on Essex Street (Noir, which the audience watched from inside parked cars), the stairs leading up to the Federal Hall National Memorial (J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation), Veselka’s restaurant in the East Village (Etiquette), a staircase in the City Court Building Clock Tower (Descent). One of the most memorable and most extensive was Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project, in which each audience member travelled (alone) a circuit starting on Roosevelt Island and ending in the Chrysler Building, with various staged interactions along the way.
At its best, there’s a deep aesthetic but also thematic connection between the site and the show. The action in Ladies & Gents did take place in a public restroom, so being in an actual one provided the kind of frisson that a theater setting could not possibly match; plus, restrooms are not spacious so watching the events unfold inches from the actors was quite tense. Marathon Dancing was about these 1930s contests (immortalized in the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They) during which couples would dance until they literally dropped in order to win cash prizes. Director Anne Bogart’s stroke of genius was to set up the action in the middle of an actual large ballroom; the audience sat on the sides, as if watching an actual marathon.
That particular show, like The Trojan Women and Stonewall: Night Variations, was produced by En Garde Arts, an organization that in the ’80s and ’90s specialized in site-specific theater with a decidedly avant-garde approach. I miss it dearly, but I can’t blame artistic director Anne Hamburger for getting tired of the financial constraints of making avant-theater in NY and packing off to work for Disney in L.A. If producing theater and dance is difficult in regular conditions, just imagine the headaches when you have to deal with permits and, of course, natural elements that may decide not to cooperate.
Oh, I forgot to mention one of my absolute favorite site-specific performances: the three men who (separately) climbed up the facade of the New York Times building!