Outdoor shows, various venues, New York

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If “free outdoor performance” once signalled the dregs – background noise to a drunken picnic in the park – it is now just as likely to promise a world premiere by a renowned choreographer, with live music to boot. It did, anyway, in New York this summer. In a country that expects its art to be useful, the free events benefit from having “social good” stamped all over them. Undeniably “for the people” – the people who are not above sitting in a puddle, rain splashing down, for the sake of a freebie (I unabashedly include myself in this category) – the free shows get funded. And everyone here needs funding now.

In June, as part of her company’s fortieth anniversary (which continues at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week), Trisha Brown transferred Roof Piece from the SoHo of 1973, heavy on light industry, to the meatpacking district of today, which mainly packs crowds into beer gardens and designer boutiques.

Atop stolid buildings of various heights on both sides of the High Line – a onetime elevated freight track converted into a 20-block ribbon of wide grassy walkway – 10 dancers in tomato red played a game of movement telephone. The placid arcs and planes they drew with their limbs zigzagged across long distances while a sharp spring wind blew.

The movement looked as utilitarian as the district used to be, but its aim was conceptual as much as visual: to imagine the dancing in terms of the buildings where it took place, with the flat roofs akin to the dancers’ helicopter arms and the water towers somewhat like their bodies. Over time, the rounds of movement grow distressed by use, as the edifices have. The high that Roof Piece excites is typical of minimalist work – more intellectual than emotional.

Self-described “action architect” Elizabeth Streb also proceeds from minimalist principles, hewing to essentials and avoiding tricks. But the result couldn’t be more different. If Brown’s work brings to mind modernist bricklayer Carl Andre, Streb’s is closer to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Human Fountain premiered at the World Financial Center’s Extraordinary Moves festival, a substratum of the River to River Festival – this pileup of organisational support necessary for a work that took a full year of experimentation to come to fruition (and to keep the performers from breaking their necks). Human Fountain burst forth in early July inside an Emerald City enclave beside the Hudson where glass skyscrapers glinted in the sun.

By comparison, the Streb set was plain – resembling the nondescript construction scaffolding that covers buildings all over Manhattan. But as soon as bodies were falling fast and thick, all humdrum associations evaporated. Fourteen “action specialists” dropped from platforms at five, 15 and 25 feet, the highest catching up with the lowest to splat on to the mat simultaneously. Or these “action engineers” dived off the platforms at a diagonal – one after another from opposite sides and different levels, each shouting their designated number – to meet at the midpoint in a horizontal X.

Sometimes the performers did a cannonball or jack knife before straightening out to land on their hard bellies, but summer fun at the pool was hardly the operative metaphor. Rather, squadrons of fighter planes rattled through my brain – the performers both bomber and bomb, commanding officer and human fodder.

Blue sky and puffy white clouds graced Human Fountain’s debut (the work will be reprised at the Armory in December). More typical was the unabated drizzle that fell last week when the Trey McIntyre company joined the delightful New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band for Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Cross your fingers for the final Out of Doors event this Thursday: the Family Stone funking it up for modern-dance choreographer David Dorfman.

In mid-July, we were engulfed by heat so oppressive that it emptied the streets, but not Larry Keigwin’s Central Park Summerstage show, which proceeded with blessed efficiency: short intermissions, few curtain calls. The repertory was also fitting – besides endearingly comic love duets, two portraits of the city.

Bolero NYC deployed a volunteer corps of 75 to depict a quirky yet peaceable community. A chorus of umbrellas opened without anyone poking anyone else in the eye, and everyone had their moment to shine. And this was supposed to represent New York? The only thing I recognised, wearily, was the amateurs’ overplaying of their 15 seconds. New York: where the grandstanding never stops.

The persuasive Megalopolis took a more distant view of us people, as if surveying the street from 10 storeys up. The vocabulary was simple – runs, chugs, walks. The excitement lay in the ever-shifting formations and the constant unexpected entrances and exits. The 12 dancers became a multitude – but a fittingly outlandish one, adorned with flamboyant arms and hands.

In late July beneath a night sky swept clean by a thunderstorm, Eiko, of the longtime Japanese duo Eiko & Koma, waded into the Lincoln Center pool and crumpled slowly sideways. She and Koma, who appeared some minutes later, seemed the oldest people in the world – blind, nearly immobile, creeping furtively towards will.

Nothing much happens in Water, a Lincoln Center Out of Doors commission (to be reprised in Los Angeles in September). The man in loincloth and woman in kimono sink into the black water and drift, sometimes with only their toes and head visible. A raft made of a triangle of branches wafts toward them; they cling to it and reach to help each other before sinking under – all as slowly as moss growing. But how beautiful the entropy was – and how moving the duo’s bone-weary attempts to save themselves from drowning – once our minds had slowed to moss speed.

For its first 20 minutes, the hour-long piece took place in silence. Then Robert Mirabal began his hard, monotonous drumming – it turns out even a Native American can produce Native American cliché. The wind pulsing across the water would have been music enough, delicately relaying the urgency of this existential scene.

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