The great outdoors

Many New Yorkers wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for the tourists, but that doesn’t keep us from resenting them when every summer they take over sidewalks, clog subway entrances, and treat the trains like Special Operation convoys. New Yorkers depend for their sanity on being oblivious in public, and these invaders won’t let us. But occasionally they make us wonder if we haven’t grown too inured – which is where site-specific performance comes in. Sprouting up across the five boroughs in summer, this species of free outdoor event makes it safe to look around again.

At, for example, the dark windows spanning the 50 floors of One New York at Manhattan’s southern tip. The more you look, the more confusing they become – are they convex, concave or contiguous with the building? More subtly disorienting are the tiles on the plaza below: the squares are set at a diagonal to the skyscraper and bordering streets. Each noon from July 16 to August 14 as part of the downtown River to River Festival, Canadian Paul-André Fortier offered a 30-minute ode to these Escheresque geometries.

On day 13, a blissfully overcast Wednesday, the buoyant, precise dancer oriented and disoriented himself within a 30 foot square marked out in duct tape. He swung his body into Ys and Xs, and flattened himself to the pavement in front of office workers on cigarette breaks and tourists en route to the ferries. The sound of traffic washed up from Water Street. Except for some teenage hecklers, the onlookers regarded the dance with a dispassionate interest that mirrored its own objectivity. In September 30X30 begins again, at the Théâtre de la Place in Liège, Belgium.

30X30 re-awoke its audience to Manhattan’s grid and its extreme ups and downs: undeniable facts. At the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park City, an excerpt from Christopher Williams’ Voyage of Garbhglas – presented by the River to River Festival and Sitelines 2010 in the first week of August – transported us to the mythical and imaginary.

Approaching the memorial from the east, you came upon three pointy-headed tuber-sprouting men sprawled out on a daisy-strewn hill, and laughed. (I did, anyway.) The memorial’s underhill Hudson River side prompted more serious thoughts. Michael Ingle – rangy hero in mossy kilt and pointy elf slippers – called us to attention with space-devouring steps that belied his cavelike confines. He was preparing the throng for the confrontations on the hill, where he soon led us.

The potato-men lay below, later rising to join the hero in a wild rumpus; troubadours on harp and voice stood above; and, still further up, three fairies with plastic doves beating in the smalls of their backs circled their arms like propellers and stretched their legs like compasses, pointing far away and long ago, over seas and centuries to the questing voyages in ancient Irish epics.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Dancing in the Streets’ Centrifugal Force: Hip Hop Generations last Sunday may have limited its backwards reach to a few decades, but it too made excellent use of its location. Undaunted by steady drizzle, several dozen dancers from crews in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens converged on the Lincoln Center fountain to dance rings around it and their gathering audience. One of the choreographers, Emilio Austin, Jr (aka Buddha Stretch), blew a whistle to direct the audience to a break-dance trio on the Avery Fisher balcony and to send the troops to the grove in front of the performing arts library, where they swivelled and stomped among the trees.

For the first half hour of the 50-minute show, the most interesting choreography was the orchestrated traffic around the recently refurbished Center. In the final act, though, the dancing took centre-stage – or a strip of pavement, anyway, in front of Alice Tully Hall. Among the two dozen dancers breaking out their signature moves, Brazilian B-boy champion Fabiano Carvalho Lopes (aka Neguin) distinguished himself by arresting each pyrotechnic manoeuvre at its most thrilling point.

With the crowds, the thumping beat and central location, it was easy to stumble upon Centrifugal Force. For theatre director Phil Soltanoff’s Sit, Stand, Walk, Lie Down for the River to River Festival and Sitelines, however, you had to hop on a ferry to Governors Island on the last weekend in July and be at the copse below the Revolutionary War era fort by 3.30 pm. There a hipster army would rush upon you and do what the dance’s title said.

When you do not know their purpose, banal activities can look absurd, the dance reminded us. At one point, a performer split from the pack to take off across a field where an Orthodox Jewish family – one of many that Sunday – was picnicking. The sprinter, in black shorts and white shirt, pumped his legs fast; the family patriarch, in black suit and white dress shirt, stood stock still. One set of rituals met another.

What a difference an audience can make to a dance. Since last year, Summerstage has spread beyond Central Park to parks across the boroughs. On a sweltering Saturday in July, Queensbridge Park – along the East River behind blocks of housing estates – had its turn.

The evening started with a dance warm-up for anyone willing. A two-hour concert of 14 short works followed, created for the occasion by Alvin Ailey dancers Abdur-Rahim Jackson and Vernard Gilmore. A core group from Ailey performed the pieces with an intensity that was disconcerting at such close range.

The young people who had been lured by the warm-up stayed for the show, joined by mothers and fathers cradling babies, and a row of little children with legs stuck out in front of them on the plastic folding chairs as they watched in awed silence. The audience totalled about 700.

Jackson and Gilmore’s style is more staccato and balletic – in short, more contemporary – than typical Ailey fare, and they do not shy away from a mean, hard beat such as Nine Inch Nails provides. But their exploration of inner and outer struggle was familiar from many a dance production: a drug addict falling apart, a loner scapegoated by his community. Oddly, though, none of it seemed familiar. What might be commonplace in the dance-world or Manhattan – same-sex romance, interracial love – was bracing in Queensbridge Park.

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