Dancing on Unconventional Stages

Dancers perform on the grounds of Red Hook's Visitation Church.

Whether it’s a brownstone parlor, the grounds of a Gothic church or the peeling basin of a long-abandoned pool, any unconventional space has the potential to become a stage for some Brooklyn-based dance companies. Perhaps the most attention-grabbing, albeit illegal, re-appropriating of this sort happened last July, when Seanna Sharpe, an aerial dancer, dangled from silks attached to a Williamsburg Bridge tower. The act ended in a fittingly dramatic way–with a police chase and an arrest.

Noémie Lafrance, a pioneering site-specific choreographer who just staged a dance piece behind Williamsburg’s Black & White Gallery last month, notes that some artists do permit-less impromptu public performances as a statement. And, even though Lafrance’s not-for-profit dance company Sens Production goes through the proper channels for its film and dance pieces in public spaces, there have been a few close calls. During an on-site rehearsal of her piece, Descent, on the winding staircase of the City Court Building clock tower in Manhattan, police intervened in what they thought was a possible suicide jump. A SWAT team interrupted a rehearsal on a public moving walkway at a Toronto airport for Feist’s 1234 video, which Lafrance choreographed. “We find a way to work it out,” she said. “People always want to stop you from doing something unusual. We’re used to it.”

The power of dance can transform a space not only for the length of a performance, but breathe new life into historic venues, as in the case of Williamsburg’s McCarren Park Pool, the location for Sens Production’s Agora in 2005 and Agora II in 2006. The public pool—three times the size of an Olympic pool—opened in 1936; in 1983 it was closed for a renovation that never took place. Curious about the huge abandoned space in her neighborhood, Lafrance was drawn by the massive, long-closed structure’s beauty and unique architecture, and she was instrumental in opening the long dry pool basin as a performance space.

After the initial dance performances, the pool was revitalized as a concert venue for Jelly NYC pool parties and L Magazine’s Summer Screen for several years until it was shut down again for renovation, this time for real. It’s expected to reopen as a pool and park in the spring of 2012.

Red Hook’s historic Visitation Church may soon experience the same revitalization through performance. Shannon Hummel, artistic director of Cora Dance says that when she created Prey, a dance piece that will return to the church in an encore performance on Oct. 27 and 28., the music–Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light–called for an extreme environment. “Almost immediately, I knew the space had to be one where the audience could be right up close to dancers experiencing very intimate moments and at other times, watching them move through enormous amounts of space,” Hummel said.

Prey debuted in 2008 at BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange in Park Slope, winding its way though the space while it was still under construction. Hummel originally intended to recreate the piece as a 2011 walking tour of Red Hook, where the audience would visit different sites on a map to see different segments of the piece. Cora Dance, which also offers pay-what-you-can classes and programs for children and adults at its Red Hook studio, then teamed up with the neighborhood landmark, Visitation Church.

Hummel intended for Prey to be performed in the church’s 800-seat lyceum theater, which has been shuttered for the past 20 years, but permits and insurance costs proved to be prohibitive. So she once again adapted the work to suit new spaces in and around the church. “The grandeur and richness of the sanctuary, the tranquility and isolation of the back gardens, and the Gothic austerity of the church’s stone front juxtaposed with the vast rolling softness of Coffey Park across the street gave me a lot of texture to play off of and really served as a home for the dance,” Hummel said.

Proceeds from the original performance in August, which drew about 200 people, went to fund Cora Dance programs and the renovation of the church—including the lyceum, which is planned to eventually become a community center and performance space.

The audience and performers get up close to one another in "Parlour Games."

Last year,  the Tze Chun Dance Company explored living spaces with Parlour Games, a series of performances that often took place in historic homes. In fact, brownstones and other classic Brooklyn architecture played a role in inspiring artistic director Tze Chun to create the piece. “I have lived in Clinton Hill for five years and love walking around the neighborhood at night because the lights inside of brownstones make each apartment like a novella or a small stage—a fleeting opportunity to see how people live,” said Chun.

Each setting provided a new experience for the audience and the dancers, Chun said. “In one Prospect Heights brownstone, the dancers improvised playing games silently in different rooms and even in the closets and bathrooms as the audience arrived at the performance,” she said. “It is rare that an audience member is able to be so intimately connected with performers and I was very excited to use the architecture of the house to create these intimate interactions, with sometimes only one audience member in a room.”

That organic, on-the-fly interaction between audience and performers, and performers and the space becomes an essential element to dance pieces that take place off the conventional stage. “I feel like I’ve realized that working in unusual sites means you are making two dances at once,” Hummel said about Prey, in which audience members move around the church with the dancers, subtly changing each performance.  “The choreography you craft as part of the dance itself, and the choreography of managing all the elements and possibilities, both wonderful and terrifying, that could arise in a space you don’t wholly have control over.”

Prey will be performed on Thursday, Oct. 27 and Friday, Oct. 28 at 7pm, ticket information.

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