The crowd for the 1:30 pm Staten Island Ferry inside the Whitehall Terminal that hugs the southern tip of Manhattan indubitably sensed that something might be up. A few might even have seen the 12:30 show. But only after the gates closed behind their departure did the first fanfare sound. A cordon of 14 women dressed in white pants and tops, the middle two bearing orange flags on poles, formed up outside the entrance gates to the terminal’s great hall.
below (l to r): Betty Williams, Naomi Goldberg Haas (with flags), Sari Nordman, Penelope Dannenberg (atop wagon) and Rebecca Elizabeth Woll
Walking briskly through the gates, the line splits into septets, each following a flag bearer and moving swiftly to occupy one of the open areas that flank the hall’s central double rows of granite benches. Before the next ferry crowd even begins to collect, fraternal, but not identical, twin dances for 7 begin; flowing passages punctuated by freezes. People in the waiting area begin to gather around for a better look. The 2nd of 14 performances of the world premiere of Fanfare by Naomi Goldberg Haas/Dances for a Variable Population has begun. Performances continue with 12:30 and 1:30 pm showings June 22, 24, 36 and 27, as part of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines series.
Now in its 6th season as part of the 8th annual River to River Festival, Sitelines has sought to vitalize the plazas, parks, fountains, bridges, staircases, and other architectural features of old New York with site-specific dances by recognized choreographers. Goldberg Haas’s 26 minute long Fanfare, produced by Lisa Simon, makes use of a number of recordings for brass ensembles by British contemporary composer Michael Nyman. In a program note, the choreographer links her choice of music to an evocation of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man."
below (l to r): M. Lindsey Smith and Jamie Graham (carrying chair) and Jackie Ferrara
She comes to her musical touchstone with a sense of mission. “Recently,” she has written on her website, “I have been working with senior populations, mixing this community with young modern dancers, exploring how these disparate groups can learn from one another about the nature of movement and expression.” The Fanfare cast divides roughly equally between these two groups, and the older performers add to a sense of poignant human vulnerability and passage within the work.
Goldberg Haas follows her formal entrance and twin septets with segments designed for three discrete sections of the great hall’s floor space. Each of these areas has been marked off with safety-orange-colored lines taped atop the terminal’s dark granite floor, and similarly colored flags identical to the ones Goldberg Haas and Sarah Chenoweth Kenney initially carried. The young dancers’ find their traction challenged in runs and turns on the polished surface. M. Lindsay Smith, Jill Frere, Jamie Graham and Rebecca Elizabeth Woll feature in two pure movement quartets, which break up other activities often involving props such as a chair and a skateboard. The choreographer keeps the dance vocabulary fairly basic.
below (l to r): Jamie Graham, Betty Williams (top), M. Lindsey Smith (bottom), Jill Frere, Rebecca Elizabeth Woll, Penelope Dannenberg
The best scenes come when these young professionals and their peers interact with the elders. These moments include an extended rotating lift in which Frere, Graham and Smith loft a reaching Betty Williams, and a slow diagonal procession in which Penny Dannenberg strikes a heroic pose atop a child’s red wagon while Sari Nordman and Woll push and pull her along. A particularly resonant and charming passage occurs when Judith Chazen Walsh drags behind her a large red rolling suitcase. Kenney appears, curled up inside, reading a book. Sometimes the educated young can come across as so much baggage.
The lithe Kenney later touchingly rests her head against the standing Walsh’s leg as she, Geraldine Bartlett, Goldberg Haas, and Nordman sit scattered about the floor watching as Williams goes airborne across the space. A solo for Maxine Steinhaus sets the frailty of a lone figure against the grandeur of the hall and the vastness of the harbor and sky that can be glimpsed through the terminal’s southern windows behind her. Carol Chave, Jackie Ferrara and Mollie Leiber join the rest of the company in bringing onlookers into the dance in its final section.
below (l to r): M. Lindsey Smith, Jackie Ferrara, Sarah Chenoweth Kenney, Judith Chazen Walsh
Even though choreographers such as Liz Lerman have been including older and sometimes disabled dancers in their work for over a quarter century, the presence of such performers in concert and especially in site-specific dance work remains a remarkable and laudable event. That the entire company for this iteration of Dances for a Variable Population (Goldberg Haas' troupe) happens to be female and ostensibly of European descent might, unfortunately, prove less challenging to the inchoate expectations of an audience perhaps new to contemporary dance. The action of stalwart stage assistant Wadson Fortune in handing props to members of the troupe at the back of the playing spaces, as well as the corps’ successful enlistment of members of the audience to join in the dancing during Fanfare's final moments, seemed only to unwittingly underscore this fact.
The uninitiated among the onlookers would seem to represent just the kind of folks that a series such as Sitelines might ideally seek to serve. In a time of economic retrenchment, as our arts strive to avoid further marginalization, the struggle of artists to fight their way out of their socio-political and economic ghettoes continues unabated.
above (l to r): Jill Frere, Lindsey Graham, Betty Williams, Jamie Graham, Rebecca Elizabeth Woll
photographs by Douglas Back, 2009, courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council