Four Continents and Five Boroughs on the Harbor
Battery Dance Festival
Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park | August 11-18, 2018
Egypt, Iraq, and Costa Rica. Spain. Canada. India. Kazakhstan. Macedonia. Gabon. Botswana. The annual outdoor Battery Dance Festival is like a show-and-tell of the company’s tireless international activity, the Dancing to Connect program. Battery Dance’s new and old friends from these ten countries on four continents were made the old-fashioned way—by asking them to dance. It’s what Battery Dance does and we could use it at a time when our State Department’s dance diplomacy programs lie fallow, defunded. Battery Dance’s week-long free festival is unparalleled in global scope, exceeding even its host city’s celebrated diversity (you will be hard pressed to find Gabonese or Botswanan culture, even in Brooklyn or Queens). But the festival also draws liberally from New York’s local dancers and companies both homegrown, like the Jamal Jackson Dance Company from Harlem, and expatriate, like Tel Aviv-born Dana Katz’s DANAKA.
With Dancing to Connect, the company has traveled to seventy countries and held workshops in areas of social and political conflict. In fact, after the festival closes this weekend, they’ll be off to Germany for the third year of their “Refugee Integration” program, for which President and Artistic Director of Battery Dance, Jonathan Hollander, recently received recognition from the German government. To give festival audiences a direct look into what all this is about, the program includes a screening of the documentary Moving Stories, which premiered at the recent MoMA Doc Fortnight Festival, and which follows the company’s workshops through India, Romania, Korea, and Iraq. To bring it back home, the live performances opened with a commissioned work, Thinking of Knowing, from three international dancers, Anno Kachina, Hussein Smko, and Christopher Núñez, who have managed to make it to New York in order to pursue their art more freely, thanks in part to artist protection funds.
The most compelling moments of Thinking of Knowing arrive at the opening and the ending. The three men walk onto the stage and each stake out the points of a triangle along the edge of the space, one facing out toward the Hudson River. They take their time; it’s an introduction—an acclimatization to the space and an orientation to each other. With the drop of an electronic beat, the dancers bodies begin to melt and pulse. Smko sprawls his elegant limbs and punctuates the balletic arches with jagged contractions. Kachina is more wild with periodic phrases of abandon, spastic shaking sending his brown curls flying. Núñez draws attention from the chaos not with dramatic gestures but with small, repetitive movements: pulling up a sleeve, again and again. At one point, an NYPD police boat must’ve heard the thumping music and pulled up behind the stage to watch.
The choreography of boats making headway and leeway in respect to each other on the New York Harbor forms the background for the movement phrases on stage charting individualistic and busy patterns this-way and that-way. But the three dancers sync up at times, as if swept up by the same currents of energy flowing around them. A few instances where the three dancers come together, however, feel forced, like the episode of mock fighting. The impetus of the animosity and emotion behind it are not evident, and therefore feel affected rather than genuine. Are they referencing war? The only context attached to the piece is the stories of these artists threatened in their volatile home countries. With a short framework, Thinking of Knowing lacks the time to develop narratives or conceptual takes on these monumental experiences the way, for example, Mithkal Alzghair’s evening-length Displacement tackles the topic of the Syrian body in the context of war and migration. The poignancy of the commission rather feeds from what feels real on the stage: small interactions among these three dancers. And this is precisely how the piece ends. Kachina, Smko, and Núñez form a circle in the center, pull their shirts off, and pass them to one another. They put on the next one. Pause. Pass. Take it off. Until their own shirts come back. Then they crumple up the cotton fabric and wipe off the sweat on their necks. Then the sweat off the floor. A raw look and feel of exertion, accomplishment, and intimacy now brims from their faces and bodies.
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With such a wide variety of dance forms and companies—both emerging and established artists—one must take each performance of the week-long festival on its own terms. From the teens of the Martha Graham School, to the renowned Douglas Dunn + Dancers, to a full evening of Kathak Indian dance, the program runs the gamut of aesthetics and professional polish. What has proved constant so far is an unabashed embrace of joy in performing dance. Some pieces are unapologetically pretty and large, bordering on melodramatic, like Caterina Rago’s piece Labir Into (2016), whose unwavering intensity and powder blue ruffled neckpieces against Sunday night’s bruised, stormy sky created fantastic apocalyptic prom-night or Ursula the Sea Witch imagery.
A reprise of the Disney villain aesthetic arrived in Dunn’s Aidos (2015) with two dancers splitting the figure of the titular goddess of shame: one in seafoam green and the other in brown camouflage—both with a headdress of spikes like Lady Liberty behind them. But here we can detect a self-aware embrace of camp, as Dunn not only takes on the theme of shame and embarrassment in this piece with his personal experience as an aging dancer, but also of going all out with the pleasure of beautiful music and beautiful dancing; the dancers trace the musicality of Bach’s Cello Suites with off kilter angles and fluid spines. (I am reminded of how Sontag includes Swan Lake and Bellini’s operas in her list of random examples in the canon of Camp.) Having had its premiere in the cavernous space of BAM Fisher, Aidos’s hellish atmosphere now is heightened in the festival performance courtesy of the green-gray, storm-dark sky.
After being rained out early on the first night, Battery Dance Company finally took the stage on Monday evening to close the program with a true show and tell. Hollander told us the story behind his piece Secrets of the Paving Stones (2003): the product of an exchange in Kraków for a celebration of klezmer music. And then the company showed it to us: a quartet of joyful combinations referencing a folksy cultural history. Afterward, Hollander again told us of international travels, suggesting that in the precarious time of travel bans, ICE deportations, and the death of diplomacy, it was a feat that all of the international companies they invited were able to get visas. We’ll have to wait for the flights to land from Gabon, Botswana, Kazakhstan, and Macedonia at the end of the week to see their shows and tales.
Gillian Jakab is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.