Every day, we navigate the public spaces of New York—bucking the tide, swimming with it, eel-ing around obstacles. “Dancing in the Streets,” now celebrating its 20th anniversary, commissions works that make us see our city differently by setting up a tension between the everyday and the extraordinary. Stephen Koplowitz, who’s been doing impressive site-specific pieces since the late 1980s, begins his The Grand Step Project by exploiting that tension.
While the New York Choral Society is singing its last enjoyable selection on the steps of the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden (the first of six major staircases the work will travel to), 50 dancers file down behind the chorus. And disappear! The singers leave, and the grand staircase is empty.
It turns out that when the performers are lying flat on the staircase’s large landing they’re invisible from below. They materialize rolling down the steps, wearing the sort of clothes seen daily in the WFC. When a person reaches the bottom, he or she climbs to roll again, stepping over those on their way down. Not your usual sight.
As the piece accumulates complexity and the movement expands slightly beyond the ordinary, I’m struck by how skillfully Koplowitz articulates the space. The Winter Garden’s stairs fan out at the bottom, so his human designs—often comprising several squads, each with its own pattern—not only occupy vertical space, but create a virtual triangle, narrower at the top.
Quentin Chiappetta recorded score, with its buried voices, might almost be an artistic ordering of the random sounds that usually fill the space. Koplowitz, too, teases us with near clutter and incipient chaos, then tidies up. He keeps our eyes busy as he splits the group into polyphonic subgroups, with motifs invading now this clump, now that one. The dancers make so many changes that I relish the moment when all of them suddenly coalesce in rows of tight seated lines, staring at us before they begin to lean sideways and raise their arms in unison. I want them to keep at this longer so I can ponder human architecture and the witty illusion of harmony and cooperation in a space that resonates with our own restlessness and private goals and ringing cell phones.
Like The Grand Step Project, Andrea Haenggi’s “site-integrated” Under Whose Control is part of the Downtown NYC River to River Festival and co-produced by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Integrated is the key word here. Haenggi has fitted a concept about corners and architecturally related dance into a magnificent ghost: the ground-floor hall of the onetime Cocoa Exchange, more recently a cigar bar. Sawed-off pipes stick several inches out of the marble floor, and shelves of empty cigar boxes are arrayed along the sides of the second-floor gallery. Erin McGonigle’s sound score (part pre-recorded, part live) sends footsteps and harsh noises echoing eerily around the high-ceilinged room.
Two tour guides herd us around the not very large space, inviting us to direct our eyes toward a woman investigating the traveling angle of a revolving door, or toward four other dancers dropping sprawled into corners and pressing their limbs against walls. From upstairs, we watch them create designs below. In intriguing costumes (by Karen Young) topped by head-hugging caps, backing into walls with their bodies bent into right angles, scooting around in a squat pushing miniature white corners, they might be a crew of guardian brownies.
We sit to watch a section in which the big, clear, demanding moves take place against an artificial white “corner,” beginning with a solo by Haenggi. Alone or intersecting imaginatively, the women are intense, though almost never really aware of one another. After a while, with no major changes in dynamics or designs, I begin to feel oppressed by corners myself. Elegantly designed as Under Whose Control is, “control” overpowers its potential for resonance.