Converting a horse stable on East 91st Street into a theater for dance was cake compared to getting patrons uptown. Joan Finkelstein, director of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project, says Playhouse 91 provides “an intimate performance venue, but psychologically it’s a jump for the Downtown audience.” With most shows south of 20th Street, the dance crowd becomes commute-impaired. For her fifth season at Playhouse 91, Finkelstein booked artists from rookie Maia Claire Garrison to legend Erick Hawkins; Lucia Dlugoszewski, Hawkins’s longtime collaborator, makes her choreographic debut at the Playhouse March 23. Gifted performers plus structural attributes— great sight lines, seats in a raked bowl— are luring audiences north: “They’re coming,” says Finkelstein, to see “companies who are just reaching the point where they can command a following outside of the Downtown spaces.” This week, Donald Byrd shows chamber works set to Duke Ellington’s scores.
Garrison’s M’zawa Danz had spectators “stomping and screaming” at the season opener, reports Finkelstein. Response could not have been more different last week when Muna Tseng premiered SlutForArt, a collaboration with Ping Chong dedicated to Tseng’s brother Kwong Chi. The hour-long program began with 98.6, a solo written and directed by Chong for Tseng. SlutForArt extended its ideas: Tseng’s brother, her “guru,” died of AIDS in 1990. His gorgeous photographs provided backdrops, but the premiere was more eulogy than performance art, and not having known Kwong Chi, I left Playhouse 91 feeling like a voyeur at a stranger’s funeral. Tseng moved purely, her gestures paralleling her words. Simple stories spoke volumes about character: as a child Kwong Chi held a lit firecracker between his fingers, blowing the tip off his thumb. He loved Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.” Though these anecdotes gave us a sense of her brother’s passion, Tseng’s last solo, performed with downcast eyes, lacked communicative power.