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Nature and culture battled for viewers at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room, where Yoshiko Chuma marshaled seven dancers, seven trombonists, and other collaborators for Sundown, a meditative seven-hour ritual on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.
The air was hot and sticky and mosquitoes were out in full force, but intrepid spectators traversed the unusual spread, an acre or so of scrub, wildflowers, and gravel alongside a blue drawbridge, providing an oddly Southern landscape for a pair of concrete silos formerly used as oil tanks.
As night fell a sliver of moon appeared, and the cast and crew hung Coleman lanterns in the grove of ailanthus. The dancers—only six on July 30, as Irish step dancer Jean Butler had sustained an injury—were in an intense, hypnotic zone, working for hours on end, guided by a cryptic, color-copied graph that specified personnel, location, and duration. Ursula Eagly, a rangy woman in a polka-dot dress, evoked a sort of scrawny, postmodern Daisy Mae. Christopher Williams, exuding drama even when standing still, added fierceness to the mix, sometimes clad in a long black skirt. Steven Reker, Saori Tsukuda, and Ryuji Yamaguchi joined them in both solitary meditations and encounters on the outside staircase, the fire-escape-like platform above it, and every inch of the property. They’d emerge or disappear unexpectedly through a trapdoor in the floor of the silo’s performance space. Sometimes they lay motionless on the ground. Folding chairs—scattered in the round room, on the lot, and in the underbrush—held viewers (and sometimes performers); other visitors, less willing to commit themselves, perched on the bridge outside the site’s wrought-iron gates. At the outdoor “box office” and upstairs in the air-conditioning, large LED clocks ticked off the minutes of this marathon.
Three of Ralph Lee’s seven-foot cubes, first constructed for Chuma last season, stood in the weeds; another one sat upstairs, serving as a frame, shelter, and sometimes, with the addition of portable white walls, screening room for a variety of clips, some from classic films, others documenting this troupe’s recent travels in Albania and Macedonia.
Chuma herself reprised her familiar role of antic conductor, in a white muslin tailcoat and lime-colored pants. Sometimes she literally conducted the ensemble of trombonists, who were identically clad in dark pants and subtly striped tops that might have come from one of the tour’s Eastern European stops. The site reverberated with what sounded like distant firecrackers but turned out to be the horn players beating on their instruments. Birds and crickets, live and recorded, augmented composer Christopher McIntyre’s horn composition, as did a sound design by Jacob Burckhardt and Stephen Moore that utilized the round room’s 16-channel hemispherical-speaker system.
Chuma’s been experimenting with this configuration of dancers, cubes, and trombones for over a year now. Her focus is paying off in moments of tight, dramatic choreography for single individuals and the mobile cubes, partners inside the cubes, and the phalanx of dancers moving in the round room and through the natural environment. Her command of English is idiosyncratic even after 30 years in New York. She led us on a guided tour of the site, which seemed to provide an opportunity for the other performers to rest and recharge, while imparting information we were already collecting with our own eyes and ears. Aspects of this enterprise—the iterations of the number seven, the cubes, the diffused focus over huge and varied spaces, the mingling of artists and audience—clearly mean a lot to her. Her task now is to clarify and tighten the focus so watchers can be similarly illuminated.
As the minutes flashed toward the 10 p.m. conclusion, an inexorable parade of jets passed over, en route from JFK. The lights dimmed, the trombonists’ deep sounds decayed into silence, and everyone cheered. Some masochist shouted “Encore!” Days later, I’m still revisiting, in my mind, the vistas and interactions of the evening. Encore, indeed.