In the past week, I enjoyed the honor and privilege of performing in Mark Dendy’s “Ritual Cyclical“, a site-specific work designed for Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza, commissioned to open the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, and to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the American Dance Festival and the 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet. My whirlwind experience in the project spanned a mere six days: three days learning choreography both for small group sections and for sequences involving all 80 dancers of the ensemble, dress rehearsal on day 4, and two free public performances on days 5 and 6. Mind you, since all of our rehearsals took place outside on the Plaza during the day, we were sort of performing the whole week. It was amazing to watch passersby get sucked into watching our rehearsal proceedings (and sharing what they witnessed via photo and video – we’re all over Instagram). Even at a performing arts mecca like Lincoln Center, civilians don’t expect to see art unfolding around their everyday routines while they make use of public space.
Mark has been very vocal about his reasons for presenting free, site-specific works in public locations. Public performance democratizes dance viewership, doing away with the economic barrier of ticket prices. It also humanizes artists by bringing them into common space with audiences. Divisions between performer and perceiver are dissolved; there is no fourth wall to break through. An article in TDF Stages describes the scene of the rehearsal process and how it reflects Dendy’s vision for social progress within the performing arts:
While Dendy creates phrases with his performers on the concrete walls and in between trees, the city observes him. People stop and Instagram. Parents pause with kids. Some eat lunch while watching. It feels like a widespread collaboration between the space’s random inhabitants and the deliberate ones.
This is precisely why Dendy has an affinity for site-specific choreography. Free public performance “brings the audience and performer on exactly the same footing, he says. “It takes the financial politics out of art, of who can afford the ticket. We’re all on equal ground. I’m not setting myself up as more prestigious or godlike: I’m just among you dancing.”
Dendy’s rejection of a proscenium stage setting for many of his recent works isn’t the only political aspect of his art. Sociopolitical comments are unequivocally woven into the structure of the piece on both macro and micro levels. The ensemble is fractured into New York archetypes: Wall Street drones, wealthy opera patrons, Brooklyn hipsters, blue-collar workers, and a militaristic police presence. After gathering together as a community at the edges of the reflecting pool…
…in which veteran Dendy dancers Colette Krogol and Matt Reeves kindle a romance through a breath-taking aquatic pas de deux:
[if that’s not what love looks like, it should. Colette and Matt are married and their chemistry & intimacy make their partnering chill-inducing]
…each group occupies a distinct domain within the plaza. Under Dendy’s reconceptualization of the space (more on this in the TDF Stages article), narrow columns along the wall of the Metropolitan Opera House became office cubicles:
Benches surrounding the shady tree grove and a slab next to the Opera House form backdrops for high-fashion modeling (this was my section, and it was a blast embodying the images of New York luxury and ostentation):
[Photo of me immediately above courtesy of Instagram user patinaglace]
The National Guard directs the crowds and stand patrol alongside Avery Fisher Hall:
Little seems amiss upon viewing each group in isolation, except perhaps the presence of indigents within the space, unacknowledged by the other occupants. (Mark invited a few dance artists to portray homeless people, hoping that it would be ambiguous to the audience whether they were performers in their piece, or real New Yorkers. These individuals, in accord with Hassidic legend, are actually spirits in disguise, meant to test our compassion.) It’s when the groups interact that the scenes become arresting (pun semi-intended): in the middle of a flirtatious romp (to music aptly titled “Miniskirt”), members of each group taken aside by the National Guard and quickly frisked. The opera attendees and Wall Street employees join forces – and appetites – to persecute and ultimately cannibalize a demi-god. (An allusion to “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” crystallizes over the “carcus” in the aftermath.) Within this social microcosm, distrust and suspicion abound, desires get out of hand, destruction ensues.
[Cannibalism is pretty fun, by the way. It’s surprisingly easy in performance, and possibly in life, to flip a switch from a classed-up, artistic sensuality to a raw hunger for flesh. ‘Blood lust’ is still lust, after all.]
An anti-war message emerges most clearly in the work’s finale, performed by Dendy’s core company. After the dancers beckon the audience over to a stage erected in front of the Library of the Performing Arts, calling out to the spectators to “come to our war rally!” and “help us send off the troops!”, six men clad in army fatigues enthusiastically show off their fighting skills over a Kronosified (ominous, distorted, dystopic) version of Charles Ives’ patriotic “They are There!”. They alternate seamlessly between displays of bravado – gravity-defying jumps, mimicking the whole-body reverberations from spraying off rounds of a machine gun, Vaudeville-style dance tricks with plastered-on grins – and picking themselves off the ground after sudden collapses, hobbling around with combat injuries. They’re getting beaten up badly, it’s clear – but they have no choice but to conceal their downfall under a thick gloss of pride.
At the end of this piece, all but one soldier has collapsed to the ground, motionless. The only survivor on the battlefield – danced hauntingly by Matt Reeves – surveys his surroundings, the crumpled bodies of his compatriots, over Kronos’ take on Jimi Hendrix’s iconic electric guitar performance of the “Star Spangled Banner”. He’s crippled, too, by a sense of duty: to remain vigilant, to stay defensive, to hide his anguish over his fallen friends. We watch him struggle to maintain his composure, distracting himself with absorption in the military routine: a furious series of push-ups, releasing aggression by pounding the ground. By the time that his gesture of trying repeatedly to grab for something above his head (or maybe do pull-ups – either way, it’s a determined, effortful, desperate motion) devolves into a an exhausted gaze up to the sky, it seems that the futility of his exertion has dawned upon him, on top of his loneliness and helplessness. Searching for assistance (divine or mortal) and coming up empty, the soldier’s post-trauma existential crisis culminates in throwing himself on the ground; he doesn’t revive (if this constitutes suicide, Camus would be rather disappointed).
In the soldier’s stead, his comrades rise up and take gracious bows, stripping down to their skivvies and flirtatiously tossing their fatigues into a screaming crowd of women. Thus begins a section which Dendy explained to us as a comment on the “celebritization of the United States”: throughout a montage of Elvis-impersonating, faux Americana songs, five men and one vixen (the astounding Colette Krogol, in a complete transformation from her reflecting pool persona) dance sexed-up, rock-and-roll movements, punctuated by the same sudden loss and regain of body control we observed in while they were army-garbed. Bombshell Colette straddles and shimmies over Matt’s corpse. They’re losing it (sanity, stability, all of the above), but they can’t acknowledge it: they can only repackage, sexualize, and sell it. My reading of this conclusion to the piece: despite our efforts to dress up and glamorize war, we’re destroying our country through devotion to a militaristic agenda.
A New York Times article remarks that “the work’s political overtones reflect [Dendy’s] current concerns in dance making. ‘I don’t believe any longer that my art can be made in a vacuum,’ he said. ‘There are too many crazy things going on in the world.'” Word. I adore abstract dance, but I find politically-motivated dance much more likely to stick with me and provoke visceral reactions. I’m not one to cry easily, even during many an immersive, emotional aesthetic experience, but I cried nearly every time I watched Matt’s “Star Spangled Banner” solo during our rehearsals and shows. I was very moved and inspired by the images and ideas Dendy invoked in this work, and I wish I saw dance in that vein more often.
I also sincerely hope that public performances become a more prominent portion of the dance landscape. Over the past year as a member of Ballet Hispanico Dos, the vast majority of my performances have been for public audiences (in Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now Lincoln Center) or for communities without much access to the performing arts, e.g. schools and communities centers in New York’s outer boroughs. Counterintuitively (assuming financial self-interest), I prefer to perform free shows without tickets. Lord knows that on my current budget, I can hardly afford to see a quarter of the dance acts that come through the city each year. If that’s true of me despite loads of racial and educational privilege, imagine how low of a priority attending a live performance must be for those who struggle considerably more than me to meet their basic needs (and don’t have parents’ wallets as a financial cushion). Free public art completely transforms the demographics of audiences towards greater inclusiveness, diversity, and representativeness. If the performing arts want to flourish, expanding audiences and the accessibility of their productions is absolutely indispensible. Call me a cultural socialist: I think the capitalist relationship between art producers and audiences, while allowing some individuals to flourish, halts and restricts aesthetic development at the community level, and prevents live performing arts from permeating culture to the degree that literature, TV, and cinema have.
Returning to a positive note, it absolutely warms my heart to see how well-attended public art performances are in New York – each free outdoor concert I’ve gone to see this summer (e.g. Kishi Bashi and the Philip Glass Ensemble in Prospect Park, the New York Philharmonic in Central Park) has been packed to the brim. I was hardly expecting the turn-out we saw for our two performances of “Ritual Cyclical”, though. See for yourself in this semi-aerial shot of Hearst Plaza:
I don’t think I’ve ever performed for an audience as large as I did on our opening night. I’m fairly certain we had at least a thousand attendees. During a solo atop a big stone slab next to the Opera House, I felt like I was on top of the world jumping in front of so many people: take a look at the crowd in front of me, and then imagine that all in behind us and to each side – and that was only in one little corner of the plaza!
Large, dense crowds did create some challenges both for us performers, who had to adapt some of our movements to cope with lack of access to space we had occupied during rehearsal, and for our audience, who had to be willing to move when asked, and to cope with absence of direct sight-lines at some points in the performance, depending where on the plaza they found themselves (perpetual modern dance curmudgeon Alastair Macaulay bitched about this – but there’s only so much you can (or want) to do to direct an audience through an interactive work: too much herding, and the work takes a turn toward the totalitarian). But the crowds also made the piece more interactive than any I have been involved in before. We had no choice but to be present and make choices on the spot, to make eye contact with those watching us, to take them along for the ride.
I think I’ve written more than enough about “Ritual Cyclical” for now, but expect a couple follow-up posts soon on art in capitalism, and other sociopolitical pieces I have performed and viewed that have stuck with me in spite of the ephemerality of the performance/perceptive experience.