Theater archives

Swimming In It


Picture this: It’s an August day in 1936 Brooklyn. The McCarren Park Pool is finally finished. Pay your 25 cents, pass under the Moorish arch into the dressing rooms, and emerge to an expanse of water 50,000 feet square, huge enough for 6,800 residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint to splash in and forget the Depression. Jump ahead to 2004. The pool closed in 1984 for plumbing repairs and never reopened (excuses: a neighborhood turned meaner, wilder, plus budget cuts, etc.). The community board, the parks department, and concerned citizens are at odds. Fill the pool in and make a playing field? Enter Noémie Lafrance, uncrowned queen of choreography in city-owned spaces. She loves the pool, talks persuasively and endlessly to officials, and her Sens Production Company helps raise money to make performances there possible. Cracks are mended, broken glass swept up, weeds pulled, and the underwater lights that once made the pool gleam at night repaired.

Lafrance calls her site-specific spectacular Agora. For agoraphobes, the name is relevant: This is one hell of an empty space. But Lafrance aimed to turn it into an agora like those of ancient Greece, where citizens gathered to gossip, hear news, buy and sell. The piece is of necessity less narrowly focused than Lafrance’s Descent (2001) and Noir
(2004). In the eerie beginning, a lone woman—picked out by beams of light, her long skirt blowing in the wind—walks carefully along a seam that bisects the pool’s concrete floor. But before long Lafrance has filled the space with carefully orchestrated pockets of activity by 30 dancers, including a snappy team of kids from the Young Dance Collective. Echoes of splashing water and excited cries erupt from Brooks Williams and Norm Scott’s sound design. Images, too, evoke the pool’s glory days. Women in bathing suits lounge; another woman rigs a little curtain against one of two round “islands” and showers with a pail of water. People empty buckets into an inflatable pool, in which two men (Elizabeth Streb’s athletes) coordinate falls
and backflips in sardine can proximity.

The more recent neighborhood is represented by a squabbling couple, two snazzy hula hoopers, a celebrity dude in shades, Saturday-night partyers, a flamenco dancer, and many more. The core group of Lily Baldwin, Elise Knudson, Ayelen Liberona, Reba Mehan, and Will Rawls, as well as others, perform big, juicy movement passages, including engaging duets with one partner supine on a skateboard. Other episodes are brief or simple: A guy furtively lifts a panel that covers a drain and walks off with a guitar. Another man gradually moves his TV, lamp, and armchair the length of the pool. In the end, the performers, now in bright-colored clothes, form a lively street fair. One audience member jumps in and gets a quick shoe shine before Thomas Dunn dims the lights.

The pool’s future is still uncertain. Maybe it will have water in it again, maybe not. Lafrance envisions more dancing.

Here are some stats on Beverly Blossom: founding member of Alwin Nikolais’s company, choreographer, esteemed teacher; 79 years old, cushiony body, lived-in face. These facts do not explain why, when she draws herself up, she seems to fill the stage, or how, as she ripples her arms grandly or scatters rose petals to Beethoven’s somber chords, she evokes Isadora Duncan. Make that an Isadora who’s a wily, eccentric comedian and relishes shtick.

In Blossom’s new The Incomplete Lament of an Old Dancer, she dresses up her loose-fitting black outfit with a derby hat, a hooded red taffeta cloak, and a black satin coat, and rambles through days present and past. One minute she speaks and moves flamboyantly; the next minute, she addresses us confidentially, perhaps dismissing as flawed whatever she’s just said or done. Placing a ball of dark net in a corner, she stares at it, mutters, “What do I do with this black cloud?” and moves on.

The recent death of a well-loved sister shapes the first section. Her sister gave her a cello; she’s taking lessons. The polished instrument onstage and the notion of swan songs subtly intersect when she listens to The Dying Swan and begins to flutter beautifully, powerfully, movingly. We laugh when she winces to show that her left arm hurts—the expiring bird merging with the dancer afflicted by age’s aches and pains. She dances with the cello too, using it for support and stepping around it with quick rhythmic foot patterns. And she speaks a regretful litany of other losses—dancers from Isadora and Ruth St. Denis down to Nikolais and José Limón. Ruth Grauert makes the lights dim and glow again as Blossom wanders—sad clown, tough survivor.

Blossom also performed her shticky charmer Besame Mucho, costumed half as a wary mustachioed man, half as a clinging female. For a 1961 solo, Black Traveler, cleverly danced by Cynthia Pipkin-Doyle, Blossom choreographed physical transformation in the Nikolais mode. The antic, gleeful black-clad creature on a low stool seemed at times to be only legs and head and as collapsible as a marionette. Pipkin-Doyle, wearing a very large hat of black feathers, also flirted and preened in Blossom’s 1999 Stylish Girl.

Blossom seems in her new solo to regret the impossibility of perfection. But when imperfection is this interesting, who needs its opposite?