The 12-story grain terminal in Red Hook has witnessed the rise and fall of shipping and manufacturing industries in Brooklyn, and the passing of countless waves of immigrants. It has seen just about everything, but until last summer it had never seen thirty rows of folding chairs and an usher. But late one evening in September, beneath threatening thunderclouds, members of Zaccho Dance Theatre—in Joanna Haigood’s Picture Red Hook—shot across the terminal’s silos, performing aerial choreography suspended from rock-climbing rope. Their dance drew attention to the unimaginable size of the building, while a montage of video images projected onto the terminal’s facade showed the building’s inner workings, along with neighborhood history and interviews with local residents.
As noted by dance critic Gia Kourlas in a recent New York Times article, dance is increasingly moving off the stage. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brooklyn, where site-specific performance has made being an audience member a rather adventurous experience. Yanira Castro & Company performed Cartography, a meditation on the seasons of love, in several buildings of the Old American Can Factory in Park Slope, while a former horse stable in DUMBO housed the architectural installations of Julia Mandle’s Feast, an exploration of Plato’s Symposium. And the dance and theater collective Red Dive sent audience members on a boat ride in their eco-tour performance Peripheral City: Rediscovering the Gowanus Canal.
Like an increasing number of site-specific performances in Brooklyn, these works explore the idea that location can be a dynamic element of performance; it can shape the creation process, contribute to a work’s meaning, and, in some cases, take “center stage,” so to speak.
History of Site-Specific Performance
Though site-specific choreography is enjoying a new moment of arrival, it first emerged during the sixties and seventies. Conceptual and visual artists of the time “led the way in saying art doesn’t need to be in this frame, be it the proscenium frame or a picture frame,” explains Martha Bowers, site-specific choreographer and artistic director of Dance Theater Etcetera, a Red Hook-based organization that works in this vein. Avant-garde choreographers who were part of the experimental “Happenings” and the Judson Dance Theater collective began radically questioning where a dance could be performed.
Seminal site-specific performances include Lucinda Child’s "Street Dance" (1965) and Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece(1971). In Child’s "Street Dance", audience members were instructed to look out of a studio window and onto the sidewalk below, where two dancers in street clothes pointed out architectural details. Here, performers were not altering the environment so much as directing the audience’s discovery of it. And Brown’s "Roof" Piece, which featured dancers performing a semaphore-like dance on the rooftops of buildings spanning ten blocks in lower Manhattan, raised issues about distance and one’s relationship to urban space.
Like their predecessors, today’s site-specific artists believe people should be able to have intense and memorable experiences of art outside institutional venues. Therefore, these artists embrace structures and spaces that are not traditionally associated with art. But unlike members of the previous generation, who set out to shock their largely bourgeois audiences, today’s site-specific artists imagine themselves to be “bridges between people and viewpoints,” says Maureen Brennan, artistic director of the Red Dive collective. For instance, Bowers, of Dance Theater Etcetera, uses her work to champion marginalized communities, and regularly includes community members in her performances. And, in an effort to humanize the urban landscape, Julia Mandle’s upcoming October performance on Fulton and Flatbush Avenues, “Variable City: Fox Square,” is as much urban planning as it is dance. Fox Square, as a public space, has been sorely underutilized, and in her exploration—a collaborative effort with choreographer Mark Jarecke and urban designer Ariel Krasnow—Mandle hopes to find ways to make it more appealing as a gathering space.
Brooklyn: Site-Specific Artists’ Haven
It’s not just cheaper housing that draws site-specific artists to Brooklyn. Its rich history as a manufacturing center has inspired many choreographers. Numerous industries were fed by barge traffic on the Gowanus Canal but then the waterway fell into disrepair. Red Dive’s Peripheral City combined boat ride with live performance on the abutting streets to examine the Canal’s fall and its efforts at regeneration.
Although Brooklyn has been heavily developed over the past several years, it remains something of an artistic frontier. “Manhattan,” observed Bowers, “is so sewn up. There are buildings and managers and everything is very formal. Brooklyn is still—well less so than it used to be—it’s a little more fluid.”
In Brooklyn, site-specific choreographers also find that they can work on a scale that is inconceivable in a traditional theater space. The wide stretch of waters in Red Hook allowed Bowers to compose her work Safe Harbor like a film—the Verrazano Bridge at sunset forms a backdrop for boats carrying performers. And when searching for a space for her Cartography, Castro pointed out at that, with the Old American Can Factory, she found “a 15,000-square-foot warehouse floor with no columns.” “And that’s almost impossible to find,” she adds. “When we saw the space we thought, ‘This is it.’ ”
One thing that all site-specific choreographers seem to share is a fierce determination. It’s not surprising given that they work in a world where the logistical support theaters provide is non-existent. Bowers noted that among the things site-specific artists hold responsibility for are “The five ‘Ps’: parking, permits, police, porta-potties, and publicity.” Choreographers often have to win over residents of the neighborhoods where they plan to perform. To enlist community support for Peripheral City, Brennan and members of the Red Dive collective regularly met with Brooklyn city agencies, community leaders, and the Dredgers Canoe Club—an environmental and advocacy organization. Outreach efforts also included befriending a group of neighborhood kids—Brooklyn Ball Busters—and using them in the performance.
For a stage choreographer, the business aspect of a performance is merely something one “gets through” before the art happens. But for many site-specific choreographers the business is art and they delve into it with the same amount of enthusiasm they bring to their choreography. In recognition of the role logistics plays in this artistic process, Bowers is offering a site-specific performance workshop at the Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX). Over the course of five days in October, Bowers hopes to encourage participants’ performance ideas as well as better acquaint them with the “invisible dance that goes on behind it”—the dance with both the authorities that control the site and the wider community. In the end, choreographers will “develop a blueprint for how they go about their next project,” Bowers explains.
Despite the difficulty of working in public spaces, the appeal of site-specific performance is undeniable. Any artist willing to take on the Brooklyn landscape as a “theater” allows for the possibility of choreographing bridges, tides, and skylines into a work. And when done well, a site-specific artist can so transform a space that the audience will never see it the same way again.
In the Zaccho Dance Theatre performance at the Red Hook grain terminal, the rain clouds that had delayed the show for two hours finally cleared. The moon rose above a lone aerialist stationed at one of the highest points of the building. As the dancer twisted and flipped he appeared to be reaching for this celestial body, creating a breathtaking image of hope.
SHANTI CRAWFORD is a choreographer and writer based in Greenpoint.