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September 14, 2005

Deadline Choreography


Site-Specific Dance

"One by one, five dancers staggered through an archway and lurched drunkenly across the concrete floor. They came together, split apart and a bit later slithered, gabbling, face-first across the brick wall.

Dancers on cellphones experimenting with an idea by the choreographer Larry Keigwin, with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.

Dancers exploring vertical and horizontal forms in Brooklyn.

The dull hum of traffic, punctuated by the clack-clack of cars crossing a bridge, filled the air. The choreographer Tere O'Connor, in baggy pants and a black T-shirt, looked pensive as he surveyed his work in the latest offering from Dancing in the Streets, a nonprofit producer of site-specific performances.

The organization has commissioned five choreographers to present 5- to 10-minute works under stuntlike conditions: they were informed after midnight Sunday, by e-mail, of the performance's location. They have until Saturday to come up with a dance.

All but one arrived on Monday, gazing about and sniffing the creative possibilities at the site, a triangular, roofless section of the 1870's-era tobacco warehouses at Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Bridge rose overhead. Glorious views of Manhattan, the East River and the Manhattan Bridge were visible through arched windows and doors. A local historian, landscape architects and the show's artistic director, Joanna Haigood, briefed the choreographers. Reporters were told the location ahead of time but were asked to keep it secret.

Imagine "Mission Impossible" in tights.

But there were serious artistic purposes here. Performances in unusual places force audiences to see and appreciate the surroundings in a new light, Ms. Haigood said. The short deadline is a way to inspire choreographers and help them gain new perspective on their creative paths.

"This is really an opportunity to examine your own process and see what bubbles up," Ms. Haigood told the choreographers. She said she hoped they would feel "invigorated and inspired."

When asked about site-specific performances, dance historians like to say that people have danced outdoors since the dawn of humanity. But as a contemporary art form, they came of age in the 1960's and 70's. They are distinct from most outdoor performances in that the area - its history or physical characteristics - shapes the content of the dance.

In this case, the short-term format was also an economical way of bringing an array of prominent choreographers into one show, said Aviva Davidson, the executive director of Dancing in the Streets.

The project is called "Breaking Ground: A Dance Charrette," a reference to the French carts in which 19th-century Parisian architecture students would rush their sketches back to school after being given a 72-hour deadline.

Conversations with the choreographers shed light on how they come up with ideas, and how one location can evoke different responses.

Mr. O'Connor said it usually takes him four to five months to create a dance work.

"So this is very quick," he said. "But you face the same questions. What is this? What is this going to become? How am I going to create something out of nothing?" The difference, he said, is that there is little pressure to produce something of high quality.

The movements on display Monday would very likely not be in his piece, Mr. O'Connor said. "Working is like dabbing. You dab and dab and paint over until you find something," he said. "It's a process of locating something."

The first element that struck him was how sunny the area was. "I don't like the sun," he said. So he began by lining his dancers up along a strip of shadow, which grew larger as the day went on. "I was responding to the heat," he said.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founder of Urban Bush Women, arrived later in the day. She strode onto the grounds and looked closely at the walls, her eyes continually drawn to the second-floor windows. "I want to figure out how to use these windows here," she said to no one in particular.

Larry Keigwin - like Mr. O'Connor, a newcomer to site-specific dance - said he had originally envisioned a pastoral setting and sought out images of animals for inspiration. That idea immediately dissolved when he saw the red-brick walls and concrete floor of the old warehouse.

Now, he said, he was drawn to the converging lines of the walls that created the point of the triangle: an architectural vanishing point. The urban setting brought cellphones to mind. Maybe each dancer could brandish them? "I immediately thought I wanted to make an urban painting," he said.

The choreographic team known as Eiko & Koma, who have long experience in site-specific dance, appeared more nonchalant.

"It's a very simple structure, so I am thinking of a simple, one movement," Koma said. Maybe something like putting a cigarette in one's mouth, given the ghosts of the tobacco trade, he said. Eiko later suggested she might bring a portrait of herself and move it along the wall, to convey the idea of an archetype of a person who may have lived and worked there. (Large paintings have figured in their work before.) Or maybe she would not, Eiko said.

One choreographer, Ann Carlson, is due to arrive on Friday. She received an information packet and a videotape of the orientation session.

The performances are scheduled for 2 and 4 p.m. on Saturday, rain or shine, and they are free.

The "Mission Impossible" idea brought its challenges. If no one knows the location until a week before, how do you advertise? The leaders of Dancing in the Streets said they sent out thousands of postcards last month announcing the event and date, and sending people to their Web site, www.dancinginthestreets.org, for details. They said they expected 1,000 people for the two performances.

The idea was suggested by Ms. Haigood, a San Francisco-based choreographer who, with her Zaccho Dance Theater, performed a work of aerial dancing at an abandoned grain elevator in Red Hook three years ago.

She and Ms. Davidson mapped out the project on a napkin during a dinner at Carmine's in Midtown last February. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, which coordinates special events at the warehouse, gave its approval, helping to cut through the usual red tape for performances in a public place."

Deadline Choreography by By DANIEL J. WAKIN, The New York Times, September 14, 2005

Posted by jo at September 14, 2005 09:08 AM