INSITU: dance in its first position
INSITU Site-Specific Dance Festival
August 4 – 5, 2018
Long Island City, NY
August in New York brings a particular type of sticky hot weather, which lends itself to afternoons spent languishing in the shade with a cold drink. But the participants in the second year running of the INSITU Site-Specific Dance Festival are far more energetic than languid. Founder/artistic director Svea Schneider and her team have positioned an ambitious sprawl of 144 free performances of work by 22 choreographers across four Long Island City public parks, including opportunities for audience participation in site-specific workshops. The festival’s mission statement aligns with its expansive geographic footprint, stressing connection, community accessibility, and “awareness of the power of movement.” At the Queensbridge Park program, dancers giddily embrace the heat and sunshine, performing athletic feats with sweat glistening on their skin and dampening their costumes. They explore choreography that alternately affirms and overwrites our expectations for a particular environment, but overall seems to prioritize physicality and thematic simplicity.
Kate Harpootlian and artists opens the performance sequence with Play: a brief frolic on a playground. I felt some dissonance with the festival’s missions of community connection, watching children vacate the playground equipment so dancers could take their place. A troupe of five young dancers, dressed in buttoned shirts and ties reminiscent of school uniforms, conducts an energetic exploration of the space, performing sweeping arm and leg movements atop various platforms of the playground. Hewing close to a literal interpretation of their site and theme, they blow on gym whistles and enact classic playground games like hide and seek. Play ends with the performers in poses of exhaustion, youthful limbs wilted over the rails of the jungle gym.
If nothing else, INSITU is well-managed; various staff arrive to announce and film the performances, as well as direct our travels from one site to the next. Our camera person adds an additional layer of the performance experience as he runs ahead of the traveling audience toward the second performance on the volleyball courts, where he circles and crouches, and assesses the most intriguing angles of R a l l y, performed by A Lady in the House Co. Four dancers clad in white travel in lines across the courts, clumping together and slinking close to the ground, then lightly jogging away from each other. They alternate between sports drills (punctuated by sporadic, good-natured shouts like “Let’s go,” “Hey-o,” and “Nice play!”) and more codified steps. Some movements are acrobatic and appear capoeira-inspired, shifting weight gracefully from feet to hands and back again. When dancers somersault gleefully on the sandy turf, their costumes bear the evidence in patches and smudges. At one point pairs face off across the court, dancing forward and back like tennis doubles.
R a l l y’sabstract and sportive shapes contrast sharply with the next performance, Douglas Dunn + Dancers’ Portal. Our group is ushered to a grand stairway along the waterfront, where fifteen dancers appear, snugly-clad in white shorts and tops. They make their way through a crisp progression of contemporary développés and arabesques, moving through circular formations and posing their way up and down the stairs in small groups. Interspersed among the adagios are a few quirky hip waggles and punching motions, which feel unexpected but not unwelcome. Portal is the first performance of the day to compete with the natural soundscape of Queensbridge Park; a score of unidentified classical music warbles pleasantly in the background.
A short walk farther along the waterfront we find Seeking Love by AnA Collaborations, the final performance in the circuit. (More adventurous audience members continued on to a site-specific dance workshop with Christopher Núñez, entitled Move Your Number.) Of the four, this performance also presents the most explicit narrative: man plays saxophone, women argue over park bench, man charms women with flowers, women charm each other. It is a simple, yet satisfying tale of summer love, and includes some creative, well-executed physical entanglements with the aforementioned bench. The two female performers gradually coax audience members into their tableau, encouraging us to take a seat. This handily shifts the designated front of the piece, and the East River becomes a scenic backdrop for the audience to enjoy. The male performer whistles the perennial NYC anthem, Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” as we watch their interactions resolve.
Several years ago in The Atlantic, journalist Madison Mainwaring (who has written for this publication) described dance writing as containing “a unique marriage of head and heart, intellect and intuition.” Perhaps the balance of each component depends upon the dance in question, and in the case of INSITU, heart outweighs head. Physicality feels more important than concept. It may be tempting to analyze technical and contextual minutiae of the performances: nuances of Maya Angelou quotes as pertaining to Play, historical roots of specific choreographic choices in R a l l y, merits and weaknesses of large group ensemble pieces à la Portal, and the implications of a man proffering flowers to subdue an emotional argument in Seeking Love. But to focus too intently or assess too critically on these topics may be to ignore INSITU’s accomplished mission: accessibility, and the power of the dynamic human form, entertaining a crowd on a sultry-hot summer’s day.