From the Bathhouse to the Bedroomby Claudia La Rocco
Beacon and For You seek new vantage points
Theaters acquire energies in keeping with what goes on in them. The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), with its penchant for the European spectacle, contains a jazzier buzz than the (sadly) staid Joyce, while the renovated Dance Theater Workshop (DTW) is too new for any real aura. When the building housing dance is a nonperformance site, like a criminal clock tower or a Manhattan rooftop, years of history carry a mysterious, exhilarating weight. Site-specific dance may not be new, but when entering a strange space, it almost always feels new. This promise can prove either a boon or a hazard for choreographers: Excitement quickly yields to disappointment when the dance fails in its transformative bid.
Set your dance in the 94-year-old Brooklyn Lyceum, a former bathhouse with a raw, industrial feel, and you’ve got a lot of atmosphere on your hands. Inspired by sources as diverse as Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers and the nightly news, Yanira Castro + Company’s Beacon explores the aftermath of tragedy. The cavernous space is perfectly suited for such an endeavor—as are our times. From wars to tsunamis, we witness events too horrifying to fully grasp; many of us give up trying, retreating into artistic bubbles. Castro clearly wanted to make us see. She and installation designer Roderick Murray stationed four plywood and Plexiglas stands in the bathhouse. Viewers were separated from their friends and shuttled into the pens (each holds 15 people on bleacher seating). Lights centered above each audience grew brighter, a wail like an air siren launched Dan Siegler’s soundscape, and the red curtains lifted from each pen. But instead of staring at dancers, audience members encountered their own reflections in the Plexiglas, with performer Pamela Vail’s ghostly figure beyond them in the dimly lit bathhouse. Castro wasn’t letting us out of our actual reality quite yet.
As Vail began her halting, abortive solo, the lights above us dimmed and she came fully into focus, pale and vulnerable before a shadowed trio (Nancy Ellis, Heather Olson, and Marya Wethers, reminiscent of the Furies). Sadly, for the duration of the 45-minute show, Castro was content to let the dance’s “reality” subsume ours, squandering the tension she so adeptly created. Soon enough, the plastic sheets separating us from the performers lifted, dissolving that barrier, and only one other time before that did Murray raise the lights in our boxes: As reflections of mittens clutching Styrofoam coffee cups wreathed the dimly lit Ellis, Olson, and Wethers, their staggering movements, stricken faces, and curly black wigs were rendered faintly ludicrous—an apt commentary on the dilemma faced by many artists in horrible times and one that I wish Castro had more fully grappled with, instead of letting us sink safely into the traditional audience-performance relationship.
Castro seemed similarly hesitant in her use of the space itself. Beacon was created before she discovered the bathhouse, but her decision not to adapt the work to the lyceum’s staircases, balcony, and raw brick walls is mystifying. Instead, we were given proscenium choreography that, frankly, couldn’t compete with its setting. Oftentimes, site-specific movement leaves something to be desired. But if the work is sufficiently integrated in its surroundings, this weakness is beside the point; we come hoping to be swept up in an alien vision rather than to experience breathtaking partnering (though both wouldn’t hurt). Julie Tolentino understands this. For You also aimed to promote self-awareness, but not through alienation. After transforming the Lower East Side gallery Participant Inc. into an intimate bedroom space, she invited visitors to enter one at a time, by appointment, for a 15-minute performance. Largely choreographed by Ori Flomin, the work included Tolentino’s improvising to a song picked by each viewer (torn between Etta James and Radiohead, I chose the latter after learning that several others had opted for James on the snowy Saturday I visited). As I entered the spare white space, flooded with cool blue light by Lori E. Seid, Tolentino settled into a restless sleep on her narrow cot. I could have stroked her cheek or smoothed her mussed black hair or the frayed shoulder of her loose white coveralls from my appointed seat. But I was too aware of my passive role; I had strayed into her dream and would move only when bidden.
To the sound of recorded footsteps, Tolentino strode to the back wall. Against Rob Roth’s blurred images of street lamps and the moon and a rough sonic collage, she ran-walked restlessly from one side of the room to the next, pushing off with increasingly ragged motions. Her dark, serious eyes held mine without challenge, an ambiguous moment of recognition later reinforced by her small, wonderfully warm smile.
She led me by my hand to my last seat, switched on a small red light, and turned over an hourglass. My choice of Radiohead’s “Creep” had been partly inspired by a feeling of awkward voyeurism, but as the song began and she walked to a corner, shaking her body out in nervous jerks, she seemed the vulnerable one. When the viewer before me left, he wore a befuddled, happy smile on his face. After Tolentino thanked me in a whisper, I exited with that same rumpled grin.
ContributorClaudia La Rocco
CLAUDIA LA ROCCO writes about performance for the New York Times and is the founder of thePerformanceClub.org, which won a 2011 Arts Writers Grant. She is a member of Off The Park press, where she is editing an anthology of poems by painters. She is on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing.