On the ferry to Governors Island, eight minutes from Manhattan’s southern tip, the skyscrapers seem to flatten like a paper model. This instant disintegration of New York reality beside the glinting waves, the rocking boat, the hint of vast ocean beyond, is reason enough to head out to the centuries-old army stronghold. But I was going for a few of River to River’s 35 dance and music shows, many of which take place there.
The 11-day festival celebrates New York experimentalism so, of course, I soon had to abandon the lovely early-summer sun for a dank and dripping basement where the elemental Eiko lay on a mat, eyes closed. Further back, the younger Tomoe Aihara was curled directly on the rough concrete. Distressed wood pillars extending to the back wall elongated the space. The women seemed miles apart – two islands.
For Two Women’s first 25 minutes, Aihara remained a mass in the middle distance while Eiko proceeded with the same mesmerising microscopic adjustments that have characterised her work with her partner Koma for decades. (He is currently injured.) Imagine the Earth’s constant geological transformations sped up so we could see them. She furrowed and buckled without the usual human lurch and jerk. Only when she opened her eyes to peer from her masklike face did time assume its normal proportions and she a creaturely sentience.
For the duet’s second half, Eiko’s extraordinary theatricality, which a slow pace tends to diffuse, came to the fore. She wrangled greedily with Aihara over a blood-red blanket as if it were her own misplaced entrails, before standing and tottering pigeon-toed down the gauntlet of pillars to fling herself against the back wall. Eiko arrived at Greek tragedy in a few deft strokes.
River to River, under long-time dance advocate and impresario Sam Miller, makes a point of spanning generations. Eiko has enjoyed a long and illustrious career; Vanessa Anspaugh is just embarking. Though she has done well on conventional stages, the demands and opportunities of this site-specific assignment clearly threw her.
For the 30-minute What Was Wasn’t Here, the audience was invited inside one of the picturesque yellow clapboards that once housed military families. The peeling paint and reek of rat poop confirmed that no one had lived here for years but the house’s austere New England elegance was still intact. We were directed to stand near the windows, where a trio of dancers soon flitted by.
I thought of childhood – the freedom from adult order beckoning right outside, but also the possibility that someone’s mother or your own might be spying on you. Indeed, half the joy of heading out the door was knowing that eventually you would be called back in. What Was Wasn’t Here leaves this fertile ground fallow. The dancers did not play hide-and-seek with us Miss Havishams at the windows. They just did a dance. It could have been anywhere, for anyone.
Ephrat Asherie, whose dance terrain is New York asphalt, had no trouble treating the audience as participants or responding to her environs, which in the festival’s first foray into after-hours was Nelson Blue, a bar near the South Street Seaport.
To artist-DJ Hector Arce-Espasas’s mix of 1970s funk, disco and salsa, Asherie’s eclectic team spun a silky portrait of New York style, weaving the swervy Latin hustle with house’s glowing plushness and hip-hop’s pumping knees, criss-crossing feet and breakdance plummets and spins. The performers were so enticing that when Asherie called the ring of onlookers out to dance, everyone went.