Nestled among monolith silver sky scrapers on Manhattan’s west side, a row of black vinyl chairs—the kind usually tacky with syrupy cocktails sloshed over plastic rims—stood on a platform raised above sidewalk level. Two dancers in sock-covered tennis shoes “marked” through a series of steps. That is, they did them at 10-50 percent of their usual intensity to delineate spacing, timing, and partnering intricacies.
Encouraged by a woman clutching a stack of teal programs, my fiancé and I were ushered onto the little stage and towards the seats.
As I walked by the dancers, I saw him. A camouflage print baseball cap shaded his ginger scruff. Perhaps incredulous himself at being recognized, world-renowned choreographer William Forsythe returned my incredulous smile.
Balletomanes know him as the choreographer of in the middle, somewhat elevated, the seminal 1987 ballet that fully unveiled the length of Paris Opera Ballet étoile Sylvie Guillem’s arachnid limbs. In a way, ballet has never recovered from this acrobatic pas de deux coolly performed in black tights. (Plenty lament that ballet is becoming more gymnastic than artistic, but few would deny the satisfaction of seeing an exquisitely arched foot casually unfurled to nose height.) Forsythe choreographed the dancers’ nonchalant leg whacking—what we call a rapid, extreme leg extension—to a metallic echoing score that, even today, seems to capture the auditory essence of “cutting edge.”
No ballerinas here. But the two dancers—Roderick George and Josh Johnson, the program tells me—were rehearsing a restaging of in the middle called Pas de Deux Cent Douze, specially commissioned for The Shed’s Prelude programming.
The Shed is NYC’s newest performing arts venue, which will open in spring 2019. Prelude consisted of two weeks of free arts programming May 1-13 this year, featuring dance battles, electronic/rap/r&b concerts, and an immersive sound and movement experience, all meant to present art outside of its rarefied environs.
Or, that’s what The Shed hopes. Given the fact that I quite literally happened upon the event while strolling on the West Side, the teal badges seemed somewhat successful in their planned spontaneity. (An oxymoron, indeed.) When I briefly chatted with Forsythe and asked about his work being presented on a postage stamp of a stage, he said, “It’s about the mood,” speaking of the “spontaneity” with a grain of salt and a smile.
With the 10th Avenue artery pulsing feet away with the city’s irregular, noisy life flow, the performance space was certainly more shed-like than the venue being constructed a block away. This seemed to be a prelude to the Prelude to The Shed. The dancers’ gray sweats might have been rehearsal-wear or, perhaps, another attempt to undercut traditional theater pretention.
Yet, more successful than costume choices at destabilizing the audience’s relationship to what they were viewing, was the fact that their chairs started moving. Right before Forsythe’s duet started, the oversized vinyl chairs began rolling away from the space they previously enclosed. (Little did I know that my chair was a moveable wall until it detached from its conjoined roof.) The invisible motors soon materialized as a group of singing dancers.
My vinyl chair felt uncomfortably throne-like after being separated and individually moved to a prime vantage point at the side of the stage. Azealia Bank’s voice followed me from a speaker, flooding the square stage. Johnson and George upped their “marking” to a full-out but breezy run-through. Despite the slippery surface and the fact that the dancers were working out just how long the piece would be minutes before they started, Forsythe’s pas de deux did well plucked out of the proscenium and dropped in the middle of Hudson Yards. The choreography presents enough windmill limbs and jumps to hold pedestrian interests. The crowd thickened like it would surrounding street performers promising death-defying breakdance feats in Washington Square Park. Here, they executed spins on sneakered half-pointe rather than the crowns of their heads.
With the end of the duet, the chanting singers resumed their song and brought the chairs back, closing off the interior space again. Somehow, wordlessly, they beckoned the audience to join them inside.
The spring day completely shut out, the dark heavily pressing on the eyelids, one had to strain to see the dancers’ hands as they reached out to audience members to guide them across the dark room. My disembodied chaperone let go after a few seconds, abandoning me to make my own way across the dark space. I tried to remember when I was last saw such utter darkness, so different from the non-vision within closed eyelids. New York apartment living means there is always a square patch backlighting the insomniac’s thoughts.
This chanting group made up Tino Sehgal’s This Variation—a performance “enacted,” as the program says, rather than danced. Their bodies move in the dark, but more present are their voices, variegated and calming. I think the soft hand helped calm unseeing unease. The light in the shed would rise just enough to see the dancers stand or lie down, then lower to blackness again. They moved seemingly without sight.
Ten minutes into this soundscape, the group of six—or eight or ten?—performers outnumbered their audience, who trickled out individually or in clusters through an opening in the back. A procession of young women I had assumed were old enough to know better giggled loudly, hands clutching each other and their pocket-sized screens as they made an ungraceful exit. I wondered if my fiancé was still inside with me. I wondered if I would be stepped on during someone’s retreat towards daylight. I wondered at what I would see if I could.
Eons later, the chanting stopped, and a performer stood and gave a monologue. In an unaffected voice, he recited (and I paraphrase):
On a recent trip, I decided to purchase airplane wifi, then got angry at the connection’s faultiness bordering on (the airline’s part) theft. On quick reflection, I questioned this anger—why miss a luxury I didn’t even know I would have that day?
Anecdote complete, the performers commenced their melodies, hum swelling to an aggressive ritualistic chanting. They began darting around their onlookers, inverse shadows passing closely enough, this time, to see. Around and around and then stopping, stomping, with a loud heave. Around and around, back and forth, swirling around their mute stony obstacles who by now were concentrated in a single corner. Dart, pass, around, stop, stomp, heave, around, swirl, stop.
Then, a settling.
For me, a thought. This might go on for hours. I had stayed longer than most of my fellow audience, but I felt that my time to leave had come.
Reluctantly, I peeled myself away from the group, inching backwards towards daylight before turning to embrace it fully. I felt that I could hear the dancers’ unvoiced thoughts, assuming they could see my as-graceful-as-possible. Another one leaves. The performer, ever conscious of being watched, thoughts darting as she does, knows when she has someone’s attention or when she has lost it.
What did I miss? Did the lights rise after the prelude in the dark, revealing an impressive dance number one could actually see? Was patience in darkness rewarded? Did other audience members witness what I had not?
Should I lament that?
On quick reflection, I question this worry. Why miss a luxury I didn’t even know I would have that day, stumbling as I did across Forsythe on 10th Avenue?
Photos by Paul Emile.