At their best, site-specific pieces create a kind of palimpsest, leaving behind images that forever alter the landscape for audience members. Those who saw Meredith Monk’s 1994 American Archaeology #1 can’t look at Roosevelt Island’s Lighthouse Park and and the ruins of the Renwick fever hospital without mentally superimposing Monk’s visions linking the island’s history with its twentieth-century life.
Larry Keigwin and Nicole Wolcott’s 82 Decibels—presented, like Monk’s decade-ago work, by Dancing in the Streets—doesn’t dig into the history of the former Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn’s Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. But I may never be able to stand in the roofless, triangular space at the end of the building without remembering the rambunctious bustle of 25 black-clad performers and hearing their voices bounce off the brick walls as they begin yelling supposedly intimate “I’m-through-with-you!” messages into their cell phones.
82 Decibels is the final event of DITS’s Breaking Ground—climaxing a “Dance Charrette,” for which the project’s artistic director, Joanna Haigood, assigned five choreographers, on very short notice, to make pieces for various sites in Governors Island’s Fort Jay. Keigwin’s 20-minute work is an expansion of the seven-minute one he made for last summer’s charrette.
The elegantly organized ruckus makes use of the space’s fine acoustics, as well as its large archways and vanishing perspective, in order to allude to facts of New York life—the subway huddle, the yelling rush to hail a taxi, the street violence, the ubiquitous cell phones, newspapers, umbrellas, and take-out coffee. Sometimes Keigwin and Wolcott martial crowds (a horde goes after the same offstage cab, with Joe Basile, in little-black-dress drag, removing his high heels for the pursuit ), sometimes they foreground individuals. Julian Barnett screams, “I don’t want to die,” while in the distance behind him, Ying-Ying Shau, Leah Verier Dunn, and Julia Wilkins balance serenely on one leg.
As in the streets of New York, private desires, fears, and frustrations leak into the public sphere. Keigwin runs through hysterically announcing “I want to fly!!!” Several times, the performers line up and scream at us, either soundlessly or very loudly. Tall Liz Riga vaults onto the much smaller Barnett to engage in a private quarrel and reconciliation. My favorite topsy-turvy image: Shau, held up by two men, runs horizontally along one wall with the big, booted strides of one who’s late for work.
Perhaps to acknowledge all the private music that’s listened to publicly on iPods, three dancers repeat in sequence the first lines of diverse pop favorites. Others sing at more length (tall, glamorous Wilkins offers a wittily smoldering take on the number that begins “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”). Competing choruses call up the city-streets classic, West Side Story—half the people singing a couple of lines of “Cool,” the others countering with “America.”
There’s plenty of rough-edged, volatile dancing; people march, bounce off the walls, affect a runway strut, jive, and sweat through a workout. And the choreographers layer the activities so cleverly and time them so well that every moment makes its point. At the end, the performers take out their phones again, this time to make up with the people they were fighting with earlier. All’s well; we can go home now.
For the second year, Noémie Lafrance has designed a spectacle for the long-empty pool in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park, where inhabitants of Williamsburg and Greenpoint once cooled off. Lafrance, known for such fine smaller-scale site-specific pieces like Descent and Noir, is very much involved with the project to restore the pool—as an entertainment venue if not a watery refuge. The task of filling such a huge arena with activity is a challenge. In Agora II, as in Agora, Lafrance responds to the size by invoking a sense of neighborhood. Teams of people in bright street clothes join her core performers in the pool to create marching patterns. At the end, the whole audience is invited to dive in and boogy. Certain figures hint at the area’s history: a bent-over woman in a big hat, a woman in a long dress and bonnet, swimmers who spread towels, two men who splash in a rubber kiddie pool. And she acknowledges the life of any park in ways both mundane and imaginative. A number of musicians play. Several bike riders pedal slowly around. The white-clad kids of the Young Dance Collective skim by on scooters, and dancers with skateboards strapped to their backs are spun and pulled by colleagues.
The actions on wheels are especially satisfying. The fluid space covering trajectories capture the vision of the pool as a place to swim in better than any of the myriad cameos that make up the work. One tiny scene, however, grafts the evening’s most mysterious and memorable image onto the place. Anjali Suneja who has been lying curled up on the pool floor, suddenly sits up when people start throwing buckets of water over her. Then she and 7th-grader Maia Sage Ermansons (who has begun the piece with a solitary, tentative walk across the pool in a beam of light) wash a pile of white cloths, kneeling in the sudden stream as it sparkles and runs along the rough concrete. Another riveting image just before the end: Performers slowly remove all their clothing and lie down to sleep.
Excerpts from the sound score that Brooks Williams and Norm Scott created for the first Agora add to the piece’s atmosphere with eerie, watery sounds, distant calls, and gentle percussion. We also hear thunder and rain. Live sound created or culled by Bora Yoon sounds magical in the resonant space. Ellie Harrison wanders around the nearly deserted pool singing an aria. Yoon strolls playing a violin.
Lafrance and other choreographers who contributed bits have created a cornucopia of images—often too many or too brief to take in all at once. And Thomas Dunn’s lighting, sensitive though it is, sometimes leaves in dimness events I think we’re meant to see. Lafrance must want us to experience Agora II as we experience street life in all its messy liveliness, catching it on the run. On occasion, she wisely reduces the cast of over 50 so we can better absorb what she wants to show us. Still, I could wish for tighter organization and design. We only catch the kids on silver scooters once, and I crave more. I’m grateful for the near-constant presence of Celeste Hasting’s charmingly bizarre squad of “Butoh Rockettes”—five women with pale makeup, white harem pants, glittering headresses, and long bright-red tresses.
Sometimes I feel like the four young men whose assignment, apparently, is to stroll once around in the pool, taking in the sights, and remarking to one another in bemusement things like, “It’s definitely something . . . ” I’ve only hinted at the plethora of vignettes—lovely, funny, moving, strange, baffling. Just taking in the sheer amount of stuff Lafrance lays out, while a breeze blows autumnal coolness into the city and planes swim by in the dark sky overhead, is a gratifying New York experience.