The Library, the Church, and the Riot

The New York Public Library outpost on Sixth Avenue at 10th Street is one of those buildings you walk by on your way to somewhere else. When it is your destination and you arrive for the first time, you may turn a few circles on the corner before realizing that the Victorian Gothic structure in front of you—with its solemn stone façade, arched stained glass windows, and spiked spire—is in fact the library’s Jefferson Market Branch.

Ernesto Pujol’s Time After Us. Photo: Simon Dove.

It’s a glorious building, and an appropriate venue for Fanny de Chaillé’s The Library, one of many performances in the French Institute Alliance Francaise’s (FIAF) annual Crossing the Line festival. This year’s festival, held from September 19 – October 13, included 16 unique events, ranging from animated gallery installations, to participatory theater, to a public forum on capitalism (in Times Square), as well as a work called A (micro) history of world economics, danced. Here is a small sampling.

When I visited the library, I checked out a “book” called Oh Mickey, You’re So Fine by Khira Jordan, who soon sat across from me and began to speak. Hers was one of many “books” available, each a story told live, one-on-one, from author to reader. Jordan, with short black hair, espresso eyes, and a smile outlined in bright purplish-pink lipstick, described a hellish job search she endured, a few years ago that culminated in a particularly surreal final interview. It was a light tale—nothing sad or dramatic, no mistakes made or lessons learned. But climbing up the spiral staircase and being offered an intimate glimpse into Jordan’s life bred a satisfying experience somewhere between performance, literary event, and first date.

A week later, farther downtown, I dodged around rush-hour joggers and scaffolding to slip into St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton, where Time After Us, a new piece by Ernesto Pujol, known for his silent walking performances, had already been unfolding for nearly seven hours.

The chapel is known as the site where New York City firemen brought their chaplain, Father Michael, on September 11, 2001, gently laying his dust-covered body at the altar. At a mere two stories tall, it feels as out of place physically in its neighborhood as it does spiritually—a tranquil space for contemplation in the heart of Wall Street.

At 5:40 p.m., some 15 people dressed in white walked slowly backwards in a counter-clockwise circle. Since 10:30 that morning, one person—starting with Pujol himself—had joined the procession every half-hour, and would do so until 10 p.m. that night. Then, one person would depart the circle every half-hour until 10:30 a.m. the following day, when Pujol would again be the lone walker.

The participants—apparent pedestrians of all ages—stepped with intention, some looking down, others up. Hands were clasped in front or held open in prostration. Though some rounded the circle slightly faster than others, the collective flowed as one organism. The concept was simple, the effect profound: a rare urban oasis of calm.

Later that evening, uptown at the FIAF headquarters, a riot broke loose, disturbing the serenity. The woman behind it was Nora Chipaumire, a Zimbabwe-born, New York-based dancer and choreographer who has built a reputation for raw and outrageous work. Several stories above 60th Street between Madison and Park, in a dark room on one side by a slanted wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, Chipaumire stood encased in a transparent Plexiglass cube, looking as if she could have been the latest Apple product.

Nora Chipaumire in rite riot. Photo: Sasha Arutyunov.

Placing a person inside a box brings to mind cages and wombs, prisons, and museum display cases. Chipaumire supplies those associations, scrawled on a long piece of paper dropped from the ceiling on one side of the room and rolled like carpet along the floor to the other. In writing, Chipaumire also describes herself as a “notoriously dangerous and savage personage (not unlike Robert Mugabe) who frequently bares her teeth and other body parts while in performance.”

This is true. Chipaumire began in a chic black outfit, which she quickly shed to reveal colorful underwear. She was stripper and animal: on display for our pleasure yet held back for our safety. She spectacularly blurred the fine line between audience and voyeur.

The full title of the work is rite riot, a nod to The Rite of Spring, which celebrates its centenary this year. Aside from a short excerpt of Stravinsky (mostly drowned out by spoken text discussing race, gender, and politics), Chipaumire seemed more concerned with replicating the response to the original work than reimagining its story or structure. It was a fresh point of entry.

Yet audiences these days are harder to incite. Even the frequent display of Chipaumire’s middle finger felt transparently calculated to shock. Truly disturbing, however, was a passage in which she seemed to hyperventilate, doubling over while heaving. Then she recovered, put her clothes back on, and engaged in a rather stretched out, self-indulgent dance, like a slow groove you might see from a person alone at a club: confident in her solitude but still seeking attention. In the original Rite, the chosen maiden must dance herself to death. Here, Chipaumire danced herself back to life. 

Contributor

Brian Schaefer

BRIAN SCHAEFER has written for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, among others. A sampling of articles can be found at www.Brian-Schaefer.com. He tweets from @MyTwoLeftFeet.

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