Theater archives

Changing Places


Some site-specific pieces forever transform the landscape they inhabit. For years, I couldn’t pass a parking lot between West Broadway and Wooster without re-envisioning Meredith Monk’s epochal 1971 Vessel, Part 3. When Joanna Haigood’s Invisible Wings premiered at Jacob’s Pillow in 1998, we spectators, crossing a dirt road at dusk on the way to the main site, could glimpse in the distance a woman in a white dress racing into the woods as if hounds were after her. For me, her image is still imprinted on that stretch of road, expressing with terrifying succinctness Haigood’s theme. Jacob’s Pillow is thought to have been a way station on the Underground Railroad, and the ghosts of slaves fleeing north may indeed be tangled in the trees.

I missed that moment in Haigood’s revival of Invisible Wings for the Pillow’s 75th-anniversary season. She has both tightened the piece and expanded it. It’s more of a journey now and lasts well over two hours; we walk a quarter of a mile (during the last part, when we sit jammed together on shallow hay-bale bleachers, it feels very long indeed). Invisible Wings lays bare slavery’s abysmal cruelty through visions both shocking and poetic, presented as the uneasy dreams of Mary (Haigood), a runaway, who arrives at the Carter family farm hidden under the floorboards of a horse-drawn wagon. We too have to travel to get to the barn where she’s sheltered. Narrator Diane Ferlatte prepares us for our trek through the woods, where bells signal the presence of a runaway slave wearing a towering iron punishment collar. In a high field, five women in the Cultural Heritage Choir, led by Linda Tillery, chant lustily, hawking products they’ve made or grown (the master, happening by, pockets their take). We follow the wagon while small, nimble, vivid Shakiri sings and points the way.

One side of the barn has been opened up to give us a full view of its interior. Two ladders rising outside it lead to a flat track at the roof’s peak. Jack Carpenter’s lighting makes it a warm haven, but the darkening sky beyond and the running figures glimpsed through it attest to its fragility and the surrounding dangers.

Some of Haigood’s visions are extraordinary. After the wagon is pulled into the barn and Mary released into sleep, slave after slave emerges uncannily—more than could ever fit into that hidden space under the cart’s floor. After the master (Robert Ernst) fondles a slave, his wife (Sheila Lopez) cracks a bullwhip over and over to expel her rage; beyond the reach of her whip, two slave women, imprisoned behind the ladders’ rungs, finally hang limply.

What dancing there is suits the situation. Robert Henry Johnson, representing the great black dancer Juba, competes with the crude caricatures performed by white minstrel Jim Diamond (Paul Benney) and wins. The slave owners and the abolitionist couple (Benney and Ashley Taylor) perform a metaphoric quadrille that turns into a vicious struggle. Ramón Ramos Alayo’s bent-over treading and rippling arms recall a lost Africa as he represents the buzzard of slave lore picking clean the bones of the dead.

Songs and stories (many of them long-drawn-out) attest to the endurance and courage of the oppressed and the power of
music, dancing, and faith to mitigate their sufferings. Slaves who disappeared were thought to fly away. At the end, Haigood (via a harness and pulley) wings through the air above the barn, turning as she goes. She’ll fly up there every time I pass the place.

Dean Moss and Ryutaro Mishima didn’t create States and Resemblances for Elevated Acre, the park behind 55 Water Street; they showed an excerpt at Dance Theater Workshop’s Nothing Festival last spring and plan to keep working. But the site where the piece is presented—by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, as part of the annual free River to River Festival—certainly has an impact on it. One evening, an Astroturf lawn is inhabited by folks picnicking, chatting, and reading while they wait until it gets dark enough for a free movie to start. Blasé New Yorkers, most of them pay no attention when Moss and Mishima, wearing only white dance belts, start running around and among them. The two waddle like old men, knees bent, arms dangling, looking unsure of where they are. When they retreat to the park’s stone paths and wind through the flower beds, we discover who the hardcore dance fans really are.

Still, even when we settle around a small crossroads to watch the rest of States, the performing area isn’t sacrosanct. The men, now dressed, amble and consult quietly and, to the barely audible voice of Caetano Veloso on a boombox, engage in some very understated dancing, their faces blank or questioning. They pause often. As they repeat their phrase, a woman brushes past them, talking emphatically into her phone. As they glance at each other and open their arms, eight people, single file, scuttle embarrassedly around them. No one enters their space when they tumble and roll with increasing speed in a field of black dots, but you can hear shutters clicking.

There’s a lot to look at. The setting sun flames the windows of Brooklyn buildings across the river. A breeze ripples the tassels of late-summer grasses. Javanese dancer Restu Imasari Kusumaningrum nests in a patch of grass. While the men stagger like old drunks, she sinks into the plants and disappears, or raises her delicately rippling arms. She seems more connected to the site than the men do. Surrounded by masks, she tries each one on, handling them tenderly. When she finally emerges to dance, her red skirt and filmy top billowing, she’s wearing a fierce mask (male, I think). She tiptoes elegantly, sinks into wide stances, and stares at us unnervingly. Picking up the mask of a beautiful woman, she gazes at it the way an old woman might seek her youthful reflection in a mirror.

The men, who’ve aged about 40 years, hobble away, but they rise out of the weeds to throw something that smokes briefly. Blessing the place, the passage of time? In an hour or so, the movie will start.