NEW YORK –“You don’t usually see them out here in the North Woods,” a woman observed admiringly, as she and her small son paused trailside to look at a dancer who stood frozen by a tree. Though not as rare as a Northern Goshawk, the sight of dancers posing amid spring’s leafy canopy was strange enough to bring passersby to a standstill.
Even in New York City, where encounters with dancers are fairly common, Central Park’s North Woods lies outside their usual range. Yet there they were, on May 15, rustling through the brush and over-running the paths in Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park, a program launched with the help of choreographer Lauri Stallings and her Atlanta-based company, glo. Creative Time, a non-profit that commissions public art, was behind this event celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Central Park Conservancy.
“Why?” the little boy demanded impatiently, as his mother tried to explain. Even in the park, people rush by on errands, and this child seemed inclined to remount his scooter and continue to his next appointment.
Yet Stallings’ aim, at least in part, was to slow us down.
And all directions I come to you, her piece for eight women, would last six hours, “migrating” from the lawn that slopes down to the Pond, along the stream that meanders through a knot of trails called the Loch, and onward into the hilly overgrowth known as the Ravine. Anyone who chose to follow the performers, twigs and Sweet Gum burrs crunching underfoot, surely lost the sense of urgency that our daily routines impose. It felt wonderful to surrender to the immediacy of the dancing, awash in the experience and only vaguely aware of the sun crossing the sky. Even a few moments of peaceful contemplation would have been refreshing.
Stallings is a versatile artist whose creations have ranged from choreography designed for the proscenium stage to museum installations. Her current project keeps alive the ideals of those free spirits who, in the 1950s, began to dance outdoors. The most important of these was Anna Halprin, who conducted movement workshops among the California Redwoods and along the sands of the Pacific coast. Halprin’s dancers participated in the counter-culture happenings of Haight-Ashbury, and her task-based project “Myths” blurred the distinction between audience members and performers.
Another pioneer, Trisha Brown, made dramatic use of an urban environment by walking down the side of a New York tenement and channeling the movements of pedestrians in a public park. Since the 1970s, the Japanese dance duo Eiko and Koma have promoted ecological awareness by bringing simulated landscapes into the theater and by performing outdoors, most daringly in their 1995 dance “River.”
All these artists, in one way or another, have sought to undo the effects of modern technology — the distancing that happens when you get into your car or consult an app. This kind of dancing discourages introspection and encourages participation, tearing away the layers of insulation that prevent us from experiencing life directly.
Offering the thrill of trespass and the hope of undreamt possibilities, it connects isolated individuals to one another and to their surroundings. It deprives us of the powers technology confers, in order to restore our human power to act.
Stallings did not mind borrowing images from Greek statuary. Draped in long gowns like chitons, the women formed a line, arms arching away from their bodies and connecting with flattened palms to the women on either side. In another sculptural sequence, they backed down the path and snaked around the pool, wrists folded against their waists. Perched on a ledge and gazing over a waterfall, with dried locust blossoms raining down, a dancer resembled a forest nymph — an image no less pretty for being conventional.
At other moments, Stallings seemed to consult the local fauna for inspiration. Resting on a slab of schist, a woman sunned herself like a turtle. A viewer gazing through a patch of leaves might notice a pair of eyes looking back at him, as a dancer knelt camouflaged in the shadows. Another, fallen in a pile of detritus, recalled the fate of wild creatures who die unmourned.
Under their chitons the women wore sports shoes, and after trailing one another languidly they might suddenly lurch and curl their backs, or pile-up in a dance that was half-Puvis de Chavannes and half-rugby scrum. A tourist studying a map might be unaware of the dancer standing close behind her, nostrils quivering to catch her scent. Or a group of dancers might swarm around a viewer, the bystander smiling submissively at first but then darting for freedom.
Somewhere near the halfway point, the dancers began to recruit volunteers from among the picnickers and sunbathers in the park. “Beautiful stranger, I am your brother,” one of the nymphs said to me. Then she pulled me into the magic circle, where I felt a dancer’s hot pulse in one hand and a man’s cool fingers in the other, taking the time to look solemnly in everyone’s eyes as we traipsed around, aware of our differences and suddenly aware, too, that we all belonged together.
Robert Johnson is a freelance dance critic who has covered the American dance scene for daily papers, trade magazines, books and scholarly journals for more than 25 years. He was dance critic for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, and is a contributor to The Dance Enthusiast, serving as its Master-Writer-In-Residence for the 2014-2015 season. He trained in ballet with Nina Youskevitch and holds a master’s degree in Performance Studies from New York University.