October 9 & 16, 2021
Richard Move’s sprawling resume includes their Bessie Award-winning conjuring of Martha Graham, productions for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project and the Guggenheim, collaborations with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and astronaut-artist Dr. Sarah Jane Pell, respectively, and much more. This mix of high fashion, cutting-edge technology, and blue chip art seems far away from Governors Island and its gentle parkland. Yet, Move’s playful curiosity and theatrical flair enlivens the meaning embedded within the landscape. I caught up with Move via Zoom to discuss the upcoming premiere.
Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone (Rail): Can you walk me along one or two trajectories of past creations that led you to Governors Island?
Richard Move: One important thread to follow is that of site-specific work. I have had wonderful opportunities to bring dance to unusual sites, including creating, essentially, a carnival in a zeppelin hanger for the European Cultural Capital in Lille, France in 2003. We had dance aficionados alongside local teenagers looking for a party. It’s very exciting to share dance with wide-ranging demographics, especially people who don’t normally seek it out.
In 2008, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) commissioned me to create performances at five sites around the Financial District, and part of that process included allowing the site to inspire a narrative, then a character, and then a dance. A whole world opens up when I visit different sites. Visual design and dance vocabulary emerge.
I started working on Governors Island in 2010, when it was barely open to the public. I love how it has grown over the years and how it’s still a work-in-progress. There are buildings that lack designated use, and spaces that are to-be-determined. The work that’s being done is a pragmatic, environmentally sound human intervention to transform abandoned buildings into public space. With that comes the return of indigenous ecosystems and species.
Rail: I started visiting the island in 2013 or 2014, and I watched all the new construction with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. The site already has so much story, as you describe, that I wondered what might be lost in the rush to turn the park into a showpiece.
Move: I’m trying to call attention to the backstory of each site and the particular species that inhabit it. Yes, you can notice the view and the beauty, but I also want to focus on this one stunning American elm tree, for example. It deserves time, contemplation, and thoughtful attention.
Rail: So, using the site not as a set but as a co-star.
Move: We’re rigging a dancer 25 feet up in a tree. But look at her interaction with the tree. You can see it as a host of myriad beautiful life forms. I started thinking about various dryads, or tree-nymphs, who protect trees. There’s one whose life is connected to the lifespan of the tree. I can’t help but wonder if it’s a political statement from the ancient Greeks, that we should think twice before we fail to take the tree’s life seriously.
Rail: Our lives are bound up with the life of those trees, aren’t they? Surviving the climate emergency and restoring and stewarding Manahatta’s ecology are one and the same.
Move: Pretty much all of Governors Island is an intervention. The entire southern part of the island was recently redesigned, but those grand trees were planted well before—a result of human intervention. These houses that used to be war rooms have been returned to Indigenous groups and other community groups. They’re used for art and culture.
Rail: That’s an important reminder. What’s now a respite from New York’s urban infrastructure is still the result of settler-colonial and militaristic fancy. It was cultivated through violent human impact that can’t necessarily be restored to some vague “before” time. It makes me wonder about your title, Herstory of the Universe. That’s pretty sweeping.
Move: We’re acknowledging the herstory, and the divine feminine that are intervening and reclaiming the island spaces. I have a duet called Demolition Angels on Outlook Hill, the highest point on the island. They are frenetic angels, dancing on the grave site of all that came before: the Lenape people who were forced off, the spirits of tiny creatures that were destroyed when that site was bulldozed, the angry spirits of its militaristic background.
Rail: How are you guiding the audience through all of these layers of meaning and design?
Move: The audience moves together as a group and each performance happens in succession, which is a first for me. We have human tour guides, as well as a program and map that’s meant to be an illustration the audience can keep. It’s kind of a treasure map, and includes a bit of information about each site.
There is theatricality, but I’ve intentionally designed the performance to both disappear into each site, and also pop and accentuate it. One piece, Ascent, takes place entirely on uneven surfaces of stone. It calls attention to each one, to the architecture of the space. None of this could exist without the site, and nothing is adaptable to any other space. These dances move from my imagination into the flesh, utterly tied to the sites with an umbilical cord.