A performance to loll for

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Over the past decade, New York has reclaimed more and more of its waterside for recreational use: every month, it seems, a new bike path or renovated pier is unveiled for citizens and tourists. Of all this activity, however, nothing I have observed can compare for ingenuity with the new site-specific piece of the experimental Mabou Mines company.

Description rather than evaluation is the most rational approach to this endeavour, since the point is not how the performance is done but that it is done at all. Titled Song for New York: What Women Do While Men Sit Knitting, the piece was conceived by Mabou Mines’ co-artistic director Ruth Maleczech as a response to September 11 2001.

The set for the show is a scaffolding bridge which has been placed atop a barge in the East River. Audiences sit on the shore in Gantry Plaza State Park to watch the 90-minute performance, which is free.

What we see is a kind of ersatz folk opera, performed by a dozen men and women. They are dressed in costumes designed to resemble birds native to each of New York’s boroughs: Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Each borough is also represented by poems, commissioned by Mabou Mines from five female writers and set to music composed by Lisa Gutkin, a violinist with the Klezmatics. The musical styles are diverse: Irish-folk, jazz, salsa. Songs are punctuated by spoken entr’actes from a male chorus, who carry oversize knitting needles, which they use for percussion.

Maleczech says she wanted the texts to function as a response to all the famous poems about New York written by men: Walt Whitman foremost, also Hart Crane and his “Brooklyn Bridge”. But the unusual venue makes it difficult to process the specifics of language.

If you attend Song for New York on an evening when the weather is agreeable, you are less likely to concentrate on text than on backdrop: the lights of Manhattan across the way, the lap of water on the shore, the sound of planes buzzing overhead. The performance, like those of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic in Central Park, is an excuse to loll outdoors with a friend or family member, and be pierced by summer’s passing.

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