Five Myles’s gate is locked to keep the boys out—because the girls are inside dancing. So says proprietor Hanne Tierney with a teasing smile. The blond theater artist, elegant in a charcoal gray outfit, holds a portable CD player that’s blasting out a hip-hop number for the gyrating teens. These neighborhood kids are rehearsing for their upcoming performance at the Brooklyn Museum, a show choreographed by a mom from the block. Outside on St. Johns Place, in Brooklyn’s predominantly black Crown Heights, a fire engine’s lights blaze in the darkness and sirens scream. Inside the warehouse turned performance space, the younger girls from the street bob their heads and tap their feet. So do director Phil Soltanoff and many members of Mad Dog, his troupe of 10 actors—all white—who wait their turn on the wooden platform to rehearse their new avant-garde collaboration, Strange Attractors.
The where, whats, and whys of this motley scene are a puzzle—but the key is a photograph on your left as you enter the large, concrete room. It shows the midsection of two men striding down a street in Africa, hands clasped—one white, one black. Over it is painted the legend MYLES TIERNEY. Myles, Hanne Tierney’s son, is the white man in the picture. A photojournalist for the Associated Press, he was gunned down by rebel troops in Sierra Leone while covering the war.
So the venue is dedicated to Myles (the fifth of his name in the family), but it’s no do-gooder memorial. Five Myles has had a complex and organic evolution. “I was looking for a studio space,” Tierney explains, “and I never wanted a studio in an art ghetto.”
One of Soho’s original art pioneers, Tierney planned to share the studio with Myles, who wanted to make a documentary about Africa. The Crown Heights location was near the subway and cheap. With a friend who now shares the building, she bought the cavernous former warehouse in October 1998, intending it partly for performances, her own and others’.
Did she have any idea the place would become a neighborhood center, with half the block hanging out there and carrying keys to the joint?
“Not at all!” she laughs. “I would have run.” But the block was curious, so she was welcoming. “Then when my son died in January 1999—and it was his space—something extra bonded us, that he was working in Africa.” The first year, Five Myles focused on Myles’s interests, with events like an AP-sponsored photo exhibit called “Eyes on Africa.” Tierney also presented her “puppet” version of Salome—Wilde’s play, deconstructed, with the characters represented by swatches of fabric, metal coils, and other materials. Mad Dog staged Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other. The Manhattan crowds crossed the bridge, and Five Myles capped its season by winning an Obie grant.
Tierney and Soltanoff were “the two Americans” at the Belgrade International Theater Festival in 1997. It was there, Soltanoff says, where they began to talk about creating a space for work like theirs, which is not easily categorized. “The work I do is theater,” he explains, “but derived from movement rather than text.” Strange Attractors, which runs from October 12 to November 10, uses patterns of street movements to investigate questions of personal identity.
Tierney calls her own work “theater without actors.” Using a Jerome Foundation midcareer grant she just won, she’ll soon be mounting her next large work, the first glimmers of which can be seen in her private studio behind the main room. Hanging from the high ceiling beyond a worktable laden with scissors, spangles, and thread are a tier of red Chinese lanterns and a long drape of scarlet lace, hung like a ball gown. This gaudy bit of fabric is “the concubine” in How Wong-Fu Was Saved, a Chinese tale turned into a short story by Marguerite Yourcenar.
Wong-Fu should be up this season, along with such projects as sculptor Richard Nona’s exploration of the kayak form, Matt Freedman’s painting installations of Prospect Park, and a dance piece titled St John’s Place on Stage, choreographed by block resident Prina Adams. Tierney’s also been approached by both BAM and the Brooklyn Museum for joint ventures.
Tierney laughs often, knowingly, and alights ever so delicately on the terrain of her grief. But many themes come together in this unlikely place: the nurturing of children, the traversing of racial boundaries that was Myles’s passion, and the power of art to transform even the bleakest of experiences. That, in any case, is how she understands the tale of Wong-Fu, who, sentenced to execution, painted himself into a boat and just sailed away.