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On Friday night in the pouring rain, a group of roughly 30 people gathered quietly near the entrance of a former door factory in Maspeth, Queens. There was a table with punch and the quiet bleep of ticket-scanning machines at the door; the bare brick walls gave away nothing beyond shelter from the storm. As is often the case at the Knockdown Center, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict the nature of the experience at hand. The grandiose, 60,000-square-foot venue has hosted drone festivals curated by Red Bull Music Academy, an experimental opera inspired by Hurricane Sandy, and an epic two nights of M.I.A. shows during her Matangi tour. Twice now, it has also served as the setting for events that are harder to define, collaborations between filmmaker Derrick Belcham and choreographer Emily Terndrup that combine immersive theater, modern dance, and independent music. Their third and final (as yet) commission for the space, titled FABLE, commenced this weekend and will continue next. It’s a must-see, especially for anyone who considers him- or herself part of New York City’s creative class.
To get to know FABLE, it helps to understand the history of the creators behind it. Terndrup cut her choreographic teeth with Sleep No More progenitors Punchdrunk, while Belcham’s film works centered on music, in his capacities as both documentarian and video auteur. They met through a mutual friend and collaborated on Marissa Nadler’s clip for “Dead City Emily” — the name of the song was a coincidence — and Belcham tapped Terndrup again after a serendipitous favor for singer-songwriter Eddi Front introduced him to Knockdown Center. “I didn’t
even know much about the building, to be honest,” Belcham remembers. “I showed up with all my equipment and everything, and the Knockdown Center was incredible, so we had a really nice shoot and I ended up meeting the curators and the management team and the owner, David Sklar. They looked into my work and decided to ask me to put on a music series. They wanted it to have something to do with music, but basically gave me carte blanche.”
FABLE, strictly speaking, is not a music performance. It is a meditation on the creative force — how it tortures and rewards, and how it can feel like a kind of madness — and there is music woven throughout. Most of the time that takes place in the form of far-off drone or cinematic strings echoing throughout Knockdown’s cavernous main room, soundtracking the narrative that Terndrup and Belcham spent months writing. But music also helps to set the mood: For each evening of the six-night run, a different artist plays a short set in the entrance hall, which acts as a sort of buffer zone between the outside world and the fantastical one Belcham and Terndrup have created. Belcham had no trouble wrangling musicians for the project — he simply called upon the extensive network of experimental and avant-garde-leaning acts already padding his Rolodex.
Julianna Barwick was Friday night’s musical steward, looping her ethereal vocals while the room’s specially rigged lighting reacted to the sound of her voice and sparse instrumentation. Barwick has also been a longtime collaborator of Belcham and Terndrup, participating in both of their previous performances at Knockdown — first The Wilder Papers, centered on two characters who start an experimental art and science factory, and again for DEBUT, which concerns itself with teenagers who break into an abandoned building to drop acid on the night of their senior prom. A few latecomers trickled in while Barwick played; her 30-minute set had the same effect as ohm-ing before a yoga practice, settling the mind and altering the headspace of FABLE’s dampened attendees. A thick black curtain rolled back across a passageway, a bright light illuminating a swirl of fog that obscured the rest of the space, and the performance began. Over the next hour, the audience followed a protagonist named John (played by Paul Corning) as he struggled with writer’s block and chased a disembodied voice (Rosalie Lowe), their dialogue terse and rhythmic. A cadre of dancers (Rebecca Margolick, Ashley Robicheaux, Kenna Tuski, Daniel Staaf, Maxwell Perkins, and Dan Walczak) represented different elements of John’s psyche, and moved with him through the brutalist structures along the 150-foot sprawl of the main room.
Belcham says he and Terndrup drew on psychological texts for inspiration and also had a psychological consultant during the writing process. “We did a lot of reading through the history of psychology, and books dealing with split personality and dichotomous relationships with the self — a lot of Franz Kafka, a lot of Fernando Pessoa,” Belcham explains. “There are quite a few quotes in this piece, because our writer is stuck, and he is experiencing this gap between what is possible for him and what he thinks is possible. He has all these starts and stops.” Belcham also mentions The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas as particularly inspiring. “The script developed over the course of a year, basically. As soon as we were done with DEBUT, we started to work on this one and it went through a lot of different iterations. This is the one that we went with, honestly because of the moment that we were experiencing. We were kind of asking ourselves what we were doing with the pieces [at Knockdown] and what we actually wanted to say.”
What Terndrup and Belcham have to say about the creative process is both painful and beautiful; at one point, the narrator describes being “trapped in a maze; in the center, how to think.” Words are a bigger part of FABLE than of any other project the pair have worked on, but as much as a traditional script figures into the plot, so does the expressive movement of the dancers. They sprawl and swoon, crawling and clawing through the space and the structures that Belcham’s team has erected — illuminated cubes, a forest of dangling neon lights, a black-painted writing desk from which one dancer pulls pages and pages of blank paper like the innards of something she’s eviscerating. Creativity is a cannibal, and set to a backdrop of strings, moody piano, and crackling noise provided by Hannah Epperson, David Moore, and Mauro Remiddi, it finally consumes and regurgitates the main character — a familiar feeling to anyone who’s tried to cobble together meaningful art using a skill set that feels sorely lacking, whether that’s true or not.
While their innovative work makes it seem as though Belcham and Terndrup couldn’t possibly suffer from the same afflictions, they are creators, too. And that’s what makes FABLE feel so authentic. When the disembodied voice asks John to relay his fantasies and dreams, and then says, “Are you with me?” it’s hard to suppress the urge to cry out, “Yes! Yes! Right there.” Terndrup will be travelling over the next few months, and Belcham plans to focus again on his films, both shooting them and touring the festival circuit. In each of their immersive works, the Knockdown Center itself has played a central role, its gorgeous architecture and practically unlimited space an integral element to each of the stories. Though Belcham has been approached about re-staging some of them in other venues, it’s hard to imagine how or where that could take place.
The good news is that there are still three nights of FABLE. This weekend’s performers include David Moore from Bing & Ruth on Thursday, Blonde Redhead and Prince Rama on Friday, and Julianna Barwick again on Saturday, this time with Skyler Skjelset from Fleet Foxes. While FABLE stands on its own, it also typifies a trend wherein the simple experience of standing in a room while a band plays some music isn’t enough; Belcham is one of several curators across the city to have reimagined the live music experience, creating a one-of-a-kind event around it. He’s content, too, with the fact that each night’s musical guest has an impact on the show itself.
“If you came two different nights, you’d definitely see two very different experiences,” he says. “One of the central metaphors in the piece is this maze. Our character takes a series of laps and keeps ending up back at the beginning, but not really noticing. The room where the audience starts is also where the audience ends after they’ve gone through this giant loop. Through the course of the night, what we hope is that you end back at the beginning, changed.”
FABLE takes place at Knockdown Center through October 17. For ticket information, click here.