A Prelude to The Shed
May 1 – 13, 2018
You may have heard buzz about the development of The Shed—a mammoth of a contemporary performance space being built on the Hudson Yards, visible from the end of the High Line—which is speeding along by city construction standards in time for its 2019 opening. The Shed’s austere glass-and-steel beam architecture boasts a fully mobile cover that perplexingly unsheaths itself like a turtle from its shell. The space, according to its website, will be “the first arts center designed to commission, produce, and present all types of performing arts, visual arts, and popular culture,” an assertion that either overlooks much of the work being done by other New York City arts spaces or else hinges upon a rather fine distinction. Popular culture might not be one’s first thought when looking around the hot and dusty construction zone of the Hudson Yards, a futuristic corner development of chrome towers on the far west of Manhattan. But it is certainly evinced in the curation of A Prelude to The Shed, an event series with an impressive array of artists including Azealia Banks, William Forsythe, Arca, Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray, and Tino Sehgal. The Prelude centers around a street corner with a modular little house structure whose outside walls are lined with plush black seats, designed for the occasion by architect Kunlé.
I came to see the cycling of works by the widely influential Forsythe and Sehgal on a day when their dancers were faced with an unforgiving heat wave. While the original program featured Forsythe’s Pas de Deux Cent Douze—a re-working of the iconic 1987 duet “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” newly set to feature two male dancers and Azealia Banks’s popular song “212”—in the days before A Prelude, Forsythe apparently created a second duet to a song by Abra with the classical and contemporary ballet dancer Roderick George and former Alvin Ailey dancer Josh Johnson. The work begins with the ending of Tino Sehgal’s This Variation, which bursts the seams of the little house as its dancers, in bright street clothes, push the wall panels to the corners of the stage platform. One heads to a turntable to play Banks’s music. Spectators crowd in around George and Johnson, both in T-shirts, jeans, and socks, and whoop as if for sidewalk busking.
Pas de Deux Cent Douze borrows often, and rather insubstantially, from the Forsythe toolbox of contemporary partnering: whirling series of angles juxtaposed with curves and morphs that land in overemphasized fifth positions and ballet arms. Johnson, long and elegant, partners the vigorous George in a whirling duet, spinning him by the hand, thrusting him upwards into snapshots of tours en l’air and Italian pas de chats five feet off the ground. The idiosyncratic moments are the most affecting: in one, the two dancers sequence deeply into their spines to crouch low. Johnson cradles George between his knees, holds him under his arms, and walks him in a low creep. Later, George cradles Johnson’s head in his hands to instigate a quick study in head-led motions. The duet had perhaps a different tone than Forsythe’s usual work in that b-boy elements figure more prominently with Banks’s music and our informal crowding, yet it was hasty in keeping with the music’s pulsing rhythm, speeding through a list of spectacular poses rather than lingering in the quirks of its partnering.
We follow the Forsythe dancers into the Shed’s enclosure for Sehgal’s This Variation, and are sealed in by its rolling panels. Inside the little shed, it’s infernally hot, and pitch black for the majority of the work. Margherita D’Adamo sings wordlessly while the Forsythe dancers gently lift and manipulate her, carrying her seated form smoothly over Johnson’s rolling body. She is joined in harmony by the remainder of an all-star cast of fourteen Berlin-based dancers spread kneeling and standing throughout the crowd, who suddenly launch into an acapella version of the Beach Boys’s “Good Vibrations” while wiggling and ponying through the crowd.
The work continues as a constantly-changing choir of jolly and satirical acapella in darkness, floating in and out of popular songs and melodies—the Black Eyed Peas’s “Shut Up,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” Timbaland’s “The Way I Are”—and occasionally into progressions of wordless dissonant harmony and spoken anecdote. Each line of song has its own Mickey Mouse’d gestures: metallic flinches and jolts to a bwa bwa choonk bass impersonation; shakes, shimmies, and chest pops to peppier pop tunes; surges of chugs across the space during crescendos; compulsive full-body downward punches and head bangs. At one point a dancer repeatedly splays onto her back and rolls up into a plank in pace with her own beatboxing. The amount of material is remarkable: by the time I left after two hours inside, the group had not reached the end of their cycle. While the viewers’ eyes never fully train to discern faces, only movement, the performers’ sense of play is somehow heightened and authenticated by this anti-stage form of performing in the dark, which removes the fraught dynamic of seeing and being seen.
This Variation struck me as quite lighthearted, bringing to mind works by the French choreographer Xavier Le Roy, with whom Sehgal danced, and the American Faye Driscoll: devised movement theater that rigorously and durationally examines the staging of goofiness. There are elements that confuse the neatness of this lightheartedness, however. For some viewers, the spectatorial blindness itself is sinister: one told me she felt too uncomfortable to stay inside long enough to understand what was happening. And at several quieter moments in their singing, individual dancers offer non sequitur anecdotes about waste and consumerism that seem a lackluster effort to infuse the work with a political heat. I am reminded of Claudia La Rocco’s 2010 Brooklyn Rail review of Sehgal’s work at the Guggenheim: “He seems to want to keep stopping. And talk about politics. I do not want to talk about politics. Always the same conversation. I give noncommittal cocktail party answers.” Squinting into that dark, I prefer to see the resemblance to happenstance city interactions the singing like an informal group of park harmonizers, the familiar tight clustering of bodies in hot spaces.
It’s a luxury to experience works by such in-demand performance makers in a casual setting. The program demonstrates both curatorial sophistication and a vision for a future of accessible performance that certainly gains momentum for The Shed’s opening. Yet in thinking about what gaps this impressive new space could fill in existing support for performance, one cannot help but feel apprehensive about what a focus on “popular culture” could mean. A phrase that may at first look like a democratizing curatorial choice often seems to be implemented in a way that corporatizes the act of art-making by implying that contemporary work lacks a marketability that would otherwise make it “popular.” Does the artist have to have celebrity recognition, or does the work have to offer a certain type of spectacle? Must it play well with popular music and social media? Museum performance curation regularly falls prey to this zeitgeistish desire to create consumable, interactive experiences out of performance. And, relatedly, in recent years artists and arts advocates have raised concerns about the principles and conditions in those spaces, such as overlooking the efforts of local choreographers in favor of international artists, unsafe performing conditions, and lack of crediting for collaborators. I hope for The Shed’s future that they remain sensitive to the needs of the artistic community, and program with the diversity in race, gender, career stage, and content of their artists in mind. One early and promising sign towards that objective: their Open Call commissioning program for New York City-based early career artists, which has just closed submissions for its first generation.