Settlement House, a two-day choreographic installation of dance, readings, and spatial interventions conceived and choreographed by Will Rawls to commemorate the centennial of the Henry Street Settlement, premiered at Abrons Arts Center on June 6, 2015 with dancers Javier Baca, Talya Epstein, Abigail Levine, Callie Lyons, sculptor Jarrod Beck, sound artist Sahra Motalebi, writer Emmanuel Iduma, conservator Ayesha Fuentes, and artist Davide Savorani.
I walk up to the entrance of Abrons a few minutes past five, and am about to enter when I notice a small crowd of people on the concrete steps of the outside amphitheater. In the middle of the crowd, four performers stand, humming. Tall rolls of paper—mostly white, occasionally black, blue, or green—are propped up at various points in space, sometimes tied together, two rolls emerging from second-story windows.
A performer wearing blue coveralls spreads an enormous triangle of rubber across the steps. The dancers scale its surface in slow motion, seemingly in opposition to gravity. The triangle reminds me of something the artist James Wyeth said about painting Rudolf Nureyev. In his early training, Wyeth had been required to watch dissections in a morgue—once he learned what was under a cheek, he could paint it better.1 In a like manner, this rubber covering allows the architecture on which we sit to be made visible.
Stiff paper rattles in the wind and scrapes across the ground. The paper, manipulated by performers, becomes a weapon, a telescope, an extension of the body, an arrow pointing up and away. One performer unfurls her roll as another coaxes it into a new roll; it becomes a scroll, a moving platform for markings, a palimpsest.
All of the installations by Jarrod Beck are made of paper, a nod to working with the archives of the Henry Street Playhouse. I imagine that the challenge of creating a commissioned institutional work is immense. Although promoted as a World Premiere, Settlement House wouldn’t make sense anywhere else but here. Work that is commissioned for a major cultural institution, much like public performance that intervenes in public spaces, often has an aspect of critique to give it a compelling edge. Appreciation is a less compelling tone for a performance situation. I was curious to see how Rawls would tackle this challenge, to see how a work could claim autonomy without having to make up its own terms.
Emmanuel Iduma approaches the mic and leads the dancers in a series of exercises—evoking the spirits of Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham (who taught at the Henry Street), and Anna Halprin. Watching the sweat drop from the dancers, I think of Claire Denis’s staging of the exercises of the Foreign Legion in Beau Travail. Iduma tells us, “This is part of the story of immigrant bodies,” and later, the four dancers recite lines from Whitman. An air of pageantry, of populous performance, prevails. After the performers exit, we are sent indoors to the Playhouse Theater for the second part of the program.
A chair is still a chair
Even when there’s no one sitting there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there’s no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight.
Dionne Warwick’s voice floats out of the front speakers along with another, unrecorded voice, faintly singing along. The song’s allusion to architecture and space, to the private histories caught up in places, is a lovely one. But the intimate feeling that this melancholy sing-along creates is lost once the curtain is lifted.
Beck and the other performers manually lower and raise sheets of paper of various shapes and opacities onto the stage. One particularly satisfying drop consists of a piece of paper that piles up onto itself, folding and layering like a waterfall. Meanwhile, text is alternately recited and sung by Sahra Motalebi in a dramatic, incantatory style. A borrowed poem and lecture from Iduma follow. Throughout the performance I assume that most of the material is original, only to look at the program later and find citations for John Cage, Italo Calvino, V.S. Naipaul, Babatunde Olatunji, Adrienne Rich, and Walt Whitman, among others. I am unclear about the function of this assemblage of writers. The textual performances address serious matters such as cultural appropriation and war in a sometimes ironic and hyper-exaggerated manner. In both cases, the delivery overshadows the content.
Aside from Abigail Levine’s beautiful solo, danced in relationship to a thick piece of paper with four holes cut out of it, the majority of the dancing is hard to distinguish stylistically. I’m not able to identify the central dance idea mentioned in the program’s description. There is a lot of almost-unison and many sharp-angled gestures. Arms and wrists often slowly descend, pushing against the floors and walls. Perhaps this particular choreographic choice is another attempt to deal with the materiality of the space, but if so, it is much less inventive than the installations. The overall blankness of expression, combined with measured phrase-work and matching costumes, seems to strip the performers of any individuality. I find myself more compelled to watch Beck, a striking presence in his heavy boots and mustache, and the two other “archi-sculptors,” Ayesha Fuentes and Davide Savorani, who simply perform the tasks of moving things around in a pedestrian but intentional manner.
The third section begins a half-hour later, outside of the entrance to the Experimental Theater, the space where, typically, the audience mills around before and after shows. The rubber triangle from earlier is laid out on the floor and dancers move on top of it, their hands smudging the walls with handprints. They now wear the paper—simple sleeveless shirts that rustle like wind.
An unexpected turn takes place when Fuentes, who has been largely in the background, leads Beck onto the rubber triangle and begins to dress him. She wraps paper around his middle, fits a rubber cap over his face—leaving only his nose and mouth exposed—affixes arm and leg paper adornments, and, lastly, a paper unicorn horn. After Fuentes herself is enrobed with a black cape, a procession forms. Outside, the whole cast creates a tableau in which the robes of the royalty are held aloft. Each performer gradually extricates him or herself, gratifyingly out of order, so that two attendants are left holding nothing. The final image of Settlement House strongly evokes the spatial quality of history, displaying the archive as embodied and ephemeral as paper in plain air.
The program notes describe Settlement House as a “halting ‘procession’ through the building’s different spaces, knitted together by a central dance idea.” Scheduled from 5:00 to 9:00 pm, it is not quite a marathon, but not long enough that you can freely come and go. Rawls has “woven these interventions into a framework.” The interdisciplinary nature of the collaboration creates more of a collection of elements than a cohesive performance, and yet the staging of the event itself feels traditional. This framework suggests a mode of engagement that is both flexible and self-motivated—and yet, the linear organization of the event doesn’t give the spectator many options.
The result is in an atmosphere rife with pauses—do we move around, do we leave to buy doughnuts, do we go home? Audiences are basically scared herd animals and when we are not clearly guided, we falter. No one seemed in the mood to rebel on Saturday. I think we were just a little embarrassed because we didn’t know when to clap, and sad we never got the chance to.
- Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer. Farnsworth Art Museum: University Press of New England, 2002. Rockland, Me.
ContributorJaime Shearn Coan
Jaime Shearn Coan (he/him/his) is a writer and editor who holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of the chapbook Turn it Over (2015) and co-editor of Marking the Occasion (2020) and Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (2016). Find him at jaimeshearncoan.net or on twitter: @jaimeshearncoan.