The free outdoor shows peppering New York and and the outer boroughs each summer always have their separate agendas but this year a stark divide emerged. On one side was the community-building event, in neighbourhood parks from the South Bronx to central Brooklyn to the banks of the East River. The art mattered insofar as it drew spectators together and lifted them up. On the other side was site-specific experimental dance aimed to shock the bourgeoisie or at least the workers on their lunch breaks and tourists. It may be possible both to flout convention and to empower but it did not happen on my watch.
St Mary’s Park is a 10-block-long, five-avenue-wide, tree-shaded oasis just beyond a grimy strip of the South Bronx that the city’s sanitation department has apparently neglected for decades. At the north-west corner of the park, picnics, birthday parties, barbecues and children were everywhere, the kids dashing in and out of a makeshift fountain, lining the basketball courts to watch the pick-up games, and dancing to their gathering’s particular soundtrack – salsa, reggaeton or soul.
Up the hill and insulated from the cacophony, Ana “Rokafella” García, co-founder of the excellent Full Circle hip-hop troupe, was expertly hosting a Bronx-inflected street, folk and club dance extravaganza for the City Park Foundation’s Summerstage. She kept things tight. Whether the dancers specialised in Afro-Caribbean, salsa, vogue, brukup or forms of hip-hop, segments were limited to 15 minutes. Afterwards, each troupe had a chance to describe its idiom and how we might learn the moves. Websites and practice days were shouted out.
The organisers and dancers wanted the crowd to “aspire” – to Keep Rising to the Top, as one spunky youthful East Harlem group called itself. But when the performers included Brooklyn brukuppers capable of insane feats of double-jointedness and a salsa dancer in knee-high boots undulating her hips and swivelling her feet faster than a Dancing with the Stars pro, emulation seemed out of the question.
The last act offered a less outlandish vision of hope. All the evening’s dancers joined in a freestyle circle – a phenomenon originating in the South Bronx – and took turns in the centre to pop, lock, primp, lope, spin on their heads, and more. The dancers were co-operative and individualistic – enthusiastic about one another and proud of their own signature moves. These last moments held out a beautiful promise: there will be room for each of us, in our idiosyncrasies, as long as there is room for all of us.
Manhattan’s River to River festival tends to favour, by contrast, a spiky approach to the audience. Even those who showed up expressly for the event – and River to River’s focus on work embedded in the urban landscape encourages the opposite, an accidental audience – were unprepared for the startling opening of Uruguayan émigré Luciana Achugarâ’s FEELingpleasuresatisfaction-celebrationholyFORM.
From the far end of a covered arcade in Tribeca, four Cousin Itt mop-heads above bare womanly legs strode toward us shoulder to shoulder. Once near, the faceless women manoeuvred their jeans up to their hips without the use of their hands: they wiggled and kicked. They flopped on the concrete like beached sea lions and pressed themselves against the glass façade of the new Conrad Hotel opposite us.
Feel ... Form was outrageous and funny but the humour was edged with cruelty. If Summerstage at St Mary’s Park made us want to hold hands with the dancers and one another and sing, Achugarâ’s piece was strictly zero-sum.One faction’s gain was the other’s loss. The hotel patrons and random shoppers either stopped to gawk, signalling their ingenuousness, or hurried blindly past, suggesting prudish unwillingness. Those of us who had come for the event had to resist feeling smugly superior. Meanwhile, the Ms Ittses offered up their bodies to the world without an iota of restraint or thoughts of self.
The outdoor edition of Show, by New York-based Cypriot Maria Hassabi, approached the audience more obliquely, via its loaded setting. This half-hour duet for Hassabi and Hristoula Harakas took place opposite the New York Stock Exchange, its neoclassical façade swathed in a huge US flag. The women were conspicuous too, in the middle of cobbled, closed-to-traffic Broad Street. But, unlike the flag, they were hard to decode.
Typical of Hassabi, Show was deliberate, intricate and pointedly erratic in its emotionality. The women might hold what resembled a fashion pose so long that their bodies shook and the glamour seeped out. Then they would subject the position to minuscule incremental adjustments, also maintained to the point of strain. The dancers began close together and looked into each other’s eyes. The romance dissipated when they turned their heads a few degrees to gaze for just as long into the middle distance.
Trickily titled, Show exposes the effort in displays of sexiness, intimacy or even repose. Revealing what a spectacle typically glosses over, Show is the opposite not only of most shows but of the stock market, which puts a premium on value, not labour. In their incomplete imitation of recognisable poses, the dancers messed with our desire to know what this art was about, if not what it was worth.
Summerstage, to August 31; www.cityparksfoundation.org/summerstage
Lincoln Center Out of Doors, to August 12; www.lcoutofdoors.org
Downtown Dance Festival, August 13-17; www.batterydanceco.com