So This Dance Walks Into a Museum...
In the 2006 adventure-comedy film Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller plays a watchman at the American Museum of Natural History who discovers that the ancient exhibits come to life after dark. As outrageous as it is, the movie taps into the sense I’ve always had that museums let their hair down after dark.
The opening night of the Brooklyn BEAT Festival, which celebrates emerging artists native to the borough, took over the Brooklyn Museum as the sun set September 12, and captured that same sense of mysterious possibility. You roam through a museum differently at night; it becomes a playground of sorts. And when there are performances popping up in hidden corners, it does feel like art has come to life.
The first of the festival’s dance offerings previewed that night, an excerpt from Nancy, by Yanira Castro, was set on an elevated square stage in the museum’s all-glass lobby. Shortly before the show began, the heavens opened up with a holy downpour and an impressive lightning display that hit with the frequency of strobe lights. The movement inside was slow and controlled while the weather outside was fast and furious.
As live music echoed throughout the museum, overstuffed elevators deposited the curious and the cool onto various levels. On the third floor, in the cavernous Beaux-Arts Court, seven women prowled and posed, much like the figures seen in the Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt exhibition in the next room. But beyond the elegant postures of the statues, the dancers also showed a common influence: the Middle East.
Fans of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company are by this point intimately familiar with Gaga, the movement language developed by the company’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin, which imbues dancers with both a gooey quality and an intense focus. These women displayed a similar mix of sensual and sharp. It made sense given that they were members of LeeSaar The Company, founded by Lee Sher and Saar Harari, transplanted Israelis who are, in fact, certified to teach Gaga in New York. But beyond the shared physicality of the movement, the choreographic structure and attitude also felt borrowed from a Batsheva formula: each dancer taking a turn for a solo freak-out followed by a group unison bit, the blank ice-queen faces, no touching or partnering or acknowledgement of anyone else, like a military unit of supermodels.
Later that night in the same space, Storyboard P, the captivating performer of a style he calls “mutant,” took to the floor. Unlike the LeeSar piece, where viewers sprawled on the floor throughout the atrium, for Storyboard P and his sidekick, Ghost, we were relegated to the perimeter, leaning over banisters as the two men consumed the expansive, shiny hall. Given that spacing, and the fluid, gliding movements, it felt at times as though we were watching a figure skating routine.
But while figure skating revels in big leaps and break-neck spins propelled by the speed of the ice, Storyboard finds his propulsion from the inside. This manifests in the folding, unraveling, and reconfiguration of his body, like a piece of human origami. His is also a highly cinematic style, scrambling elements of stop-motion animation with a vaudevillian sensibility. It is mesmerizing.
“Mutant” is a type of contemporary street dance, a cousin of breakdancing, locking and popping, roboting, liquiding, et al. Dressed in a loose white suit and fedora, Storyboard looked every bit the noirish gentleman which, from my angle, responded intriguingly to the large portrait of W.S. Davenport by Dutch painter Kees van Dongen, circa 1925, which hung behind him. Both commanded attention.
The afternoon of September 17, Storyboard and Ghost revived the production on the plaza of the Barclays Center as part of the BEAT Festival’s site-specific programming over its 10-day run. Under a Jumbotron promoting upcoming sport events and in front of an enthusiastic crowd pushed up to the lip of the stage, the two men, again in suits, improvised to Jay-Z’s urgent beats and contemplative lyrics, sometimes to inspired effect, sometimes to less inspired effect. But whether on a street corner or under an epic dome, Storyboard P has a unique voice that reverberates.
Earlier that day—the bright-blue kind that walks a tightrope between summer and fall—I stopped by the Metrotech Center to revisit Nancy in the lobby of the National Grid offices at lunchtime. Four performers—Tess Dworman, Kristen Schnittker, Anna Marie Shogren, and Pamela Vail—took turns embodying, or channeling, the performer Nancy Ellis. Each wore the same black outfit. Each hit a series of balances and gestures to an aggressive clash of metallic sound. From this it was difficult to determine who, exactly, Nancy was and why four interpretations of her could look and sound so alike.
I love site-specific dance: when dance shows up unannounced and barges through the front door of, say, a corporate office building in Brooklyn. People stop. First out of confusion, then amusement. They might stick around a bit and say to themselves, “This is cool, I should see more dance,” even if, in all likelihood, they won’t. But it gets dance out there, walking around in the world, meeting its neighbors.
Unfortunately, Nancy wasn’t really the friendly type. She wasn’t the type to smile at you on the street—more the type to cross her arms, look down, and brush by. Viewers lingered for a few moments but most didn’t stay. A few women, who worked upstairs, took in the show from the second story balcony.
“It’s very different, very unexpected,” one woman allowed.
“It’s not my thing,” said the other.
A police officer strolled up beside me. “It’s dancing, right?” he asked, unsure. I said it was and asked what he thought about it.
“I’m in uniform,” he said with a smile. “I have no comment.”