New Yorkers can thank Dancing in the Streets, a nonprofit organization founded by Elise Bernhardt and now directed by Aviva Davidson, for opening their eyes to spectacular vistas around the city. DITS has brought San Francisco–based dance artist Joanna Haigood, a site-specific specialist as much at home on the ceiling or in the dirt as she is on a studio floor, to coordinate events that challenge both artists and audiences. The site was kept secret from the the chosen choreographers until five days before showtime. Haigood staged a “dance charrette,” similar to an architecture project that must be finished in 72 hours, packed in a cart, and presented for evaluation.
On August 14 Davidson and Haigood loaded Douglas Dunn, Noémie Lafrance, Reggie Wilson, Elizabeth Streb, and Yasuko Yokoshi into a ferryboat and took them to Fort Jay, the 250-year-old military installation at the north end of Governors Island in New York Harbor. (Given DITS’s mission to animate sites that are in transition—last year they worked in the Tobacco Warehouse in DUMBO’s Brooklyn Bridge Park—it was pure serendipity that Haigood, the daughter of a military man, lived on the island as a young girl, and knew its landscape well.)
The choreographers chose spots on, in, and around the five-pointed fortification, and quickly composed 10-minute works shown to huge crowds twice on August 19. DITS staff led audiences around the fort at high noon and again two hours later. The broiling sun added to the poignancy of Reggie Wilson’s L. Moat (East) 8-19-06, which took place in a wide ditch between the lawn and the fortress’s outer wall. As viewers massed under a huge old tree, Wilson, Elaine Flowers, and Michel Kouakou sang while tossing empty water bottles back and forth and balancing them on their heads, perhaps evoking the lives of laborers. Spread over a wide area, their actions lacked coherence.
Topographical challenges and time limitations resulted in a couple of pieces that were essentially snapshots, arresting but very brief. Lafrance’s Invasion mobilized 12 dancers, dressed them in black with protective gardening gloves, and sent them hurtling over a wall into another section of the moat, where they then tried to scale the opposite wall, bouncing off and rolling on the grass and getting up and trying again, to the military cadences of Phil Kester’s drums. Similarly fearless, Streb in TunnelVision explored the possibilities of the tilted walkway within the Fort’s West Sally Port; she rolled toward us as accomplices sloshed water, small balls, and finally buckets of rocks down on her from above.
Yokoshi’s Lost made the most dramatic attempt to combine her own culture and history with that of the site, costuming performers in kimonos, horned helmets, and schoolgirl skirts, and setting them adrift on a high fortification between a flagpole (on which her cast raised four white flags) and a cannon. Recorded sounds included explosions and plaintive bugles; the performers, separated from one another on the long, narrow parapet, called out anxiously.
Finally we were ushered into the fort itself, and seated in a courtyard. This felt the most like a conventional theatrical setting, and Dunn and his four dancers took full advantage of it in Glass Sea. A generation or two older than the others, Dunn mostly lurked at the rear, gesticulating against a barrier he used as a barre. Though their costumes were contemporary neon spandex, the four younger dancers’ relationships seemed formal and attentive, as if the environment had calmed them.
For two more days—Friday and Saturday, September 1 and 2—you can catch the free ferry to Governors Island and explore this remarkable piece of New York history before the service is discontinued. It sails from Slip 7 in the Battery Maritime Building on South Street between Whitehall and Broad streets, just left of the Staten Island Ferry terminal; the trip takes 10 minutes. For schedule information visit govisland.com or call 212-440-2202.