If you passed through Madison Square Park during certain hours last week, you might have seen them: the dancers on the lawn, in white costumes streaked with bright colors, maneuvering around trees and over fences, or just standing still. You might also have noticed the sculptures in their midst: a curved blue wall, a red pavilion, a circular green floor built into the grass.
Or you might have missed them altogether. One pleasure of watching public performance in New York is watching other people watch — or, in this case, not watch at all. On Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday evening, and Sunday morning, as I spent time observing “Desire Lines” by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, I was struck by how many people walked right by, giving only a passing glance, if that, to the dancing. That phenomenon spoke to the busyness of New Yorkers, of course, but also to the ways in which the work itself, a series of improvisational practices surrounding Josiah McElheny’s wood and glass sculptures, went about its own business, not seeking out attention but not deflecting it, either. “You can look, or not,” it seemed to say. “We’ll be here.”
Mitchell and Riener, former members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, are the first dance artists to take up residence at “Prismatic Park,” an installation designed by McElheny with collaboration in mind. Over the next few months, poets, musicians, and more choreographers — selected by the nonprofit organizations Blank Forms, Danspace Project, and Poets House — will use the artworks to anchor explorations of shared public space and its creative potential.
One wrinkle in that plan, during the first week of “Desire Lines”: The space wasn’t entirely shared. For reasons related to rain and lawn maintenance, the grass was often closed off to everyone except for the performers, reinforcing exactly the kind of divide that the work sought to disrupt. (“Can we defy systems of control, find new pathways and move to create better futures?” a program note asked.) Yet the dancers, a rotating cast that differed each day, found ways to play with and circumvent those barriers. One exercise, on Tuesday, sent David Rafael Botana and Justin Faircloth clambering over the lawn’s outermost fence and back in, again and again, taking a new approach each time. On Sunday, Mitchell and three dancers walked shoulder-to-shoulder along the park’s main path, as their less orderly peers engaged in a kind of inquisitive, effortful frolicking on the grass.
There was no music save the soundtrack of the city, which, on Sunday, included the roar of the Pride parade on Fifth Avenue and the national anthem that ushered it in. Under what other circumstances could you see the striking Mina Nishimura improvise, beneath a canopy of branches, to “The Star-Spangled Banner”? “Desire Lines” isn’t always so rivetingly strange as it was in that moment, and that’s part of its beauty — the space it leaves for the mind to drift. It culminates in an all-day performance on July 1, and I’ll be back, to pay attention, and to let my attention wander.
‘Prismatic Park’: Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener
Madison Square Park
Through July 2