At the closing of Danspace Project’s Platform 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, I sensed some fatigue in the room. The final event was a panel discussion in two parts, and I was one of the panelists, so I can’t say this perception was entirely objective. But as the conversation wrapped up nearly an hour early, I wondered if the questions of uptown versus downtown (versus midtown), of nodal points and lineages, of the Cunningham-Balanchine-Judson trifecta at the root of this experiment had run their course over six weeks of thorough contemplation. Maybe they resisted further scrutiny.
Or maybe we were all in a little bit of shock from the commotion four blocks away, where—speaking of buildings—two had come crashing down a few days before. As I entered St. Mark’s Church that afternoon after circumventing the rubble on Second Avenue, I thought about this centuries-old building and buildings in general: their living, breathing interiors. How we take for granted that they’ll stay standing, and stand still. The sturdy destinations of people in the streets.
On the day of the explosion, a Platform-ending party was in the works at Danspace. Though the streets outside remained barricaded, illuminated by sirens, the show went on, and rousingly so. It was a fun, low-tech cabaret, with appearances by voguer Javier Ninja, litefeet dancer Chrybaby Cozie, “arty rap group” Yackez, ballerina Elena Zahlmann, percussive duo Michelle Dorrance and Jean Butler, and auctioneer Lucy Sexton, whose superpowers, apparently, include inspiring people to donate generous sums of money in public. When I arrived around 8:30 p.m., the neighborhood still smelled like fire. More than usual, the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church felt like just that, a refuge.
A lot had happened here in the past six weeks. 12 dancers and choreographers, brought together in unlikely pairings by the critic and curator Claudia La Rocco, had shared the results, however raw, of their collaborations: Silas Riener and Adrian Danchig-Waring; Kaitlyn Gilliland and Will Rawls; Rashaun Mitchell and Sara Mearns; Jodi Melnick and Sterling Hyltin; Jillian Peña and Troy Schumacher; and Yve Laris Cohen and Emily Coates. On Friday afternoons, classes had convened (the Platform’s “pedagogical spine”), led by Riener (Merce Cunningham technique and composition), Gilliland (George Balanchine’s Serenade), and Coates (Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A, taught by Rainer herself at the second of two sessions). In the final week, Pam Tanowitz, who, at the closing discussion, dubbed herself “your midtown choreographer,” made a dance in a day (seven hours, really) with two of her company members and four dancers from the New York City Ballet. One room containing all that.
In her introduction to the Platform catalogue, La Rocco framed these encounters with the question: “What would happen if?” What would happen if Sara Mearns, City Ballet’s blazing star, and Rashaun Mitchell, enigmatic choreographer and former Cunningham dancer, got together in the studio? Or if Sterling Hyltin, another luminous City Ballet principal, spent some time with Jodi Melnick, who—as she wrote in the catalogue—has “danced the brain of many dance artists,” from Trisha Brown to Sara Rudner to herself?
I admit to being intrigued by the notion of “seeing Sara Mearns up close,” a preoccupation that Coates, at the final conversation, suggested we move beyond. Coates danced with City Ballet for six years before going on to perform with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Twyla Tharp, and Rainer: a rare leap from ballet to postmodern dance. She built a dance program from the ground up at Yale University, where she now investigates relationships between physics and dance, the subject of her Platform performance. Seemingly immune to panel fatigue, she was restless, eloquent, determined to keep probing. So you see Sara Mearns up close. Then what?
A real question. Because proximity mattered in “Starts and Fits, No Middles No Ends: Eight Unfinished Dances,” the work that Mitchell, Melnick, Hyltin, and Mearns created together, having merged their duos into a quartet. Even as they walked casually through the space, brushing past our seats, Hyltin and Mearns had a far-away look in their eyes—the kind that works to their advantage in a 2500-seat theater—as if gazing out beyond the sanctuary walls and stained-glass windows. Melnick and Mitchell, by contrast, just walked (“just”), and when they began to dance, they seemed guided by the subtlest internal impulses, letting those ricochet out. The differences were stark. It’s no small feat to be right where you are when your audience is a few feet away.
I’m interested in those differences, how they don’t just disappear (when the Platform began, I think I thought they would). How the behavior of an eye or tilt of a head encodes entire value systems, built up over centuries, or torn down. I’m reminded of what the estimable Valda Setterfield said after observing Gilliland’s Serenade workshop: “If you’ve stood in an opera house, you understand epaulement.” That inclination of the shoulders, neck, and head in ballet: it comes from dancing for royalty.
Other differences proved more prickly. In Jillian + Troy with Cassie + Kaitlyn, Peña and Schumacher debated the merits of choreographing to music. Peña, a choreographer both inspired by and skeptical of classical ballet, recoils at the thought; Schumacher, a City Ballet choreographer and corps member, knows no other way (and doesn’t seem to want to), though he conceded to using a relatively ambient score in their duet for Gilliland and Cassie Mey. The choice to not let music dictate movement—by no means radical these days—seemed newly rebellious, and as polarizing as ever. And what about choreographic output? How many steps make a dance? Schumacher was surprised to learn that in the short piece they’d created, Peña thought there was, as he put it, “enough material for a downtown-length work.” She would deconstruct and draw it out; he would add more.
Who was in charge here? Though perhaps most pointed in Jillian + Troy, that question surfaced in all of the projects, as balances of power tipped this way and that. “Starts and Fits” inverted the assumption that Melnick—the more seasoned choreographer—should call the shots, as Hyltin took a seat and, microphone in hand, directed her partner (or her pupil for these purposes) through harrowed scenes from Balanchine’s La Sonnambula.
“Die your own death, Jodi. It hurts more than you think,” Hyltin said, coaching the role of the dying Poet, as Melnick swerved and stumbled. (Those unforgiving and, in this context, very funny cues invoked Hyltin’s own coach, Allegra Kent.) When Hyltin took Melnick’s place and slipped into the role of the Sleepwalker—taking slow, firm, yet tentative steps, with a microphone-as-candle lighting her diagonal path—her far-off look became suddenly haunting, her presence both mystical and irrepressibly real.
Laris Cohen and Coates, meanwhile, maintained separate domains, collegially opting for “coexistence” over collaboration and presenting separate pieces. I attended on the final night of Laris Cohen’s three-phase work, which, I gather, was less vexing than the night before, when his collaborator, Tom von Foerster, recited a formidably long list of every City Ballet performance he’d attended since the 1980s (and where he had dined after).
This performance, “Patron,” took place on a singular surface—City Ballet’s portable touring stage, identified in the program as D’Anser—that Laris Cohen and team had laid down the previous evening, in “Platform.” The final phase (also titled “Platform”) was a retrograde of sorts: picking up, loading out. Laris Cohen was exiting the church gates as I entered, hauling a slab of floor: a panel, if you will, to bring us full circle. I assumed he was preparing for the show, unaware that this was it, the dance of building and unbuilding, of assembling structures to dismantle them.
Traffic rushed by on Second Avenue, which was still intact that night, no detours. And fatigue had not set in—not for me, anyway. And maybe the resistance I would sense, when asked to reflect on this all, was purely my own, and it came from feeling so full.
Siobhan Burke writes on dance for the New York Times and other publications. She teaches at Barnard College.