When a group of women dressed in white began dancing in the Whitehall Ferry Terminal last Wednesday afternoon, the crowd initially didn’t know what to make of it. They looked on in bewilderment as the dancers split into three groups and performed with gusto to a brassy score that blared from speakers overhead. Eventually, people began pulling out their camera phones — a twenty-something guy in a baseball cap laughed as he filmed the action, and a construction worker tapped his boot and smiled. By the end of the 22-minute performance, the dancers were surrounded by a tightly packed crowd jostling for a better view.
And that was just the dress rehearsal.
The dancers, members of Naomi Goldberg Haas’ Dances for a Variable Population, will be performing at Whitehall Terminal through June 27 as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines Series. Now in its sixth year, Sitelines is a program of free, site-specific dance performances that take place at various downtown locations throughout the summer. This year’s sites include One Chase Manhattan Plaza, the Seaport, and a staircase in Battery Park City.
The performances are designed to surprise and delight viewers by transforming everyday spaces into works of art. And even though the dances themselves last no more than a half hour, the effect is permanent — we’ll never think of Whitehall Ferry Terminal in quite the same way again. Last week, we caught up with the woman behind the series, Sitelines founder and producer Nolini Barretto, to talk about the appeal of site-specific dance and the nightmare of getting permission to do it.
Flavorpill: Why did you want to create a site-specific series?
Nolini Barretto: When we do it this way, we get people who wouldn’t ordinarily go see a dance performance, whether because they’re intimidated or think they wouldn’t understand it or couldn’t care less. And if it happens while they’re hanging around and they enjoy it, then maybe they’ll see more. The whole idea is to bring in those kinds of people.
FP: How do you choose choreographers to participate?
NB: Usually it’s choreographers whose work I’ve been following for a while. You have to have a certain amount of entrepreneurship to be able to do something like this. So I see work and think of people who have that kind of adventurous spirit, because this is difficult compared to working in a theater. There are so many variables, so many things you have to expect, like people wandering into a performance. Sometimes, after everything is all set, some construction will start right next to you.
FP: Has that happened to you?
NB: Yes. Last year we had the Graham Company outside the New York Stock Exchange, and we did everything — we got all our permits and everything — and then right at the end, when the performance was about to start, jackhammers started. There are things you just cannot control. The people on the production side and the choreographers and dancers have to be willing to not be diva, to go with the flow and work around it.
FP: Do the choreographers choose the spaces, or do you?
NB: I tell the artists, go out and find any space that has some resonance for you, that really attracts you, and we’ll try and get you that space. Sometimes they’re open spaces, private spaces, public spaces with high security. It’s a huge job. It’s the biggest challenge there is in this job. Sometimes even trying to figure out who owns a piece of property is a challenge. So Naomi found this space, and I thought, oh boy, this is going to be so tough. But it worked. The DOT’s Urban Art Program really helped us negotiate our way around the red tape.
FP: What was the most difficult location to get?
NB: Once we had a performance with Monica Bill Barnes [in the fountain at Bowling Green Park]… and that was the scariest one in terms of the permit because we didn’t get it until the day before the performance. Because, as some parks guy said, there is no permit for being inside the fountain. So we had to go as far up as the deputy commissioner of parks, and he said, we have a couple of issues; one is insurance. And we said, we got that — LMCC provides us $2 million of liability insurance for every project. And he said, OK, we just put new lights in the fountain; just tell them to stay away from them. And I said sure no problem, and boom — it was OK. But that was the day before. We were dying. And we didn’t get permission in time for rehearsal… so Monica would just go in guerrilla style when the guards weren’t there.
FP: For choreographers, what are the benefits of working outside a theater?
NB: At the end of the series we have a talk-back with the artists, and every one of them says that the thing they liked the most about this was the interaction they had with the audience, which they don’t have in a theater. One of the guards [at Bowling Green Park] was a real fierce-looking fellow, and he was the most adamant about not wanting [the Monica Bill Barnes performance] to happen without the proper papers. But he got to see the dancers all the time when they were performing, and eventually he started giving them suggestions. And that level of engagement is something that artists never see from the general public. So you just have to look for people who get off on that, who are willing to engage with people on a very one-to-one level and are not afraid of it.
The Sitelines Series is part of the 2009 River To River Festival summer schedule.