Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Challenges in Making Site Work

Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on
Our first series of blog entries will focus on the creation of our new project, "Strangers on Tong Chong Street" and with the particular challenges of creating site-specific work for an unfamiliar space, a site unseen. It will likewise tackle the various issues concerning touring work that is meant to be site-specific.
The inherent challenge in creating our new work is the simple fact that we are in New York and the site is in Hong Kong. In the past, we have worked in several ways to create our site-specific dances. Our tendency is usually to approach a site with three considerations: architectural, social, and historical. So, in preparation, we research the social and historical, apply it to our movement and images, and prepare the architectural in terms of the known: the corners, walls, streets, and tables.

"Hope & Anchor" (2005) by Zach Morris & Keely Garfield; Photo by Arthur Donowski
Naturally, the most desirable scenario is when we are able to work periodically on site throughout the creative process. Both Zach and I were afforded this luxury with our respective Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Sitelines series performances. Zach, together with Keely Garfield, created "Hope & Anchor" for the South Street Seaport in Manhattan and I created "REEL" for the Rotunda of the National Museum of the American Indian, US Customs House. For both, we spent time throughout our months of creative development in studios and then applied our ideas to the space. This frequent checking in with the architecture of the site allowed us early perspectives on what would work and what wouldn't. It also afforded us "trial" audiences, the regular denizens of the area who often responded as strongly to our rehearsals as to the performances. In fact, some of our most rewarding lessons in site work came from observing the developing relationships between the vendors, the day-to-day inhabitants, and ourselves. Most interactions were positive, a few were contentious, but all were illuminating. A favorite was during "Hope & Anchor" as performer Marissa Nielsen-Pincus perched on a whisky barrel, a flustered Sunglasses Hut vendor called the NYPD to complain that a mermaid was ruining his business.
When working with the dancers to create "REEL" in 2005, we had an ideal residency situation at 133 Beekman in the South Street Seaport, just a few blocks away from the museum. Here, we were able to interact with the unique architecture of an empty Liz Claiborne department store to develop methods of site-specific movement generation, exercises that got us working more efficiently during our extremely valuable rehearsal time in the rotunda. What we experimented with inside this studio environment was tested and reformulated every two weeks at three-hour on site rehearsals. Although only six hours per month were spent on site, the ongoing shuffling of movement material back and forth between the studio and the space maximized those hours.

Tom Pearson's "REEL" (2005), LMCC's Sitelines series
at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

I began early on to research the history of the rotunda as a holding area for customs, as an architectural masterpiece, and as a dichotomy of messages, especially in the context of a museum for the American Indian. I was struck by the portraits of European colonizers on the walls, images of commerce, and the multiple levels of scrutiny in the gaze of the portraits, the hidden cameras, stationed guards, and airport security. With that to frame the work, we spent the first rehearsal in the space focused on the physical attributes of the site and working those into our movement vocabulary.
Knowing that this work would be performed in the round, we had to consider ways in which to best focus attention in such a vast space without being dwarfed by the overhead skylight or enormous width of the playing area. We used unison movement when far apart to unify the space with a common intention. When we were clustered, we could afford to go into more individual, idiosyncratic phrases. It was important to shatter our group into breakneck runs and then reassemble in order to cleanse the palette for a new idea. At one point, we broke the perimeter of the space by stepping out onto the marble and into the niche beneath Columbus. Afterwards, the intent was focused on repairing the circle, finalized by reclamation of space and the spinning of the web.

We have also done work where we had much more limited access to the site. Last year, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors presented "Lacuna," and I chose the Reflecting Pool for our site. We were only allowed on site the day before the performance, leaving us with only a few hours total to adapt our movement to the physical environment. Furthermore, we were instructed not to touch the Henry Moore sculpture, which is the focal point of the pool. Although we were unable to work within the site, we were able to visit ahead of time to get a feel for its dimensions, its effect on daily traffic through Lincoln Center, and we were able to formulate our connections to its form, textures, and messages. We were also able to imagine the work sculpturally in relation to the Henry Moore work and how we could create tension by playing very close, even underneath it, without making contact.

Tom Pearson's "Lacuna" (2006) Lincoln Center Out-of Doors
"Beehive," our work for Dance Theater Workshop's 40Forward celebration was similar in that we only had one or two rehearsals on site before the performance. The other challenge was performing in an efficiency-sized staff kitchen. To work our way around this, most of the movement was staged in Jennine Willett's kitchen on the Upper West Side. Instead of working in a studio, we basically rehearsed in Jennine's cabinets.

Zach's experience at the South Street Seaport had to take different obstacles into consideration. First, the work was a promenade piece, so he had to figure out ways to make it progress in intuitive traffic patterns so the audience could easily follow. He also had to factor in the vendors, shops, daily traffic grid, and a rowdy happy hour crowd. Moreover, Zach and his collaborator, Keely Garfield, had to find ways to create sharp, immediate focus to draw in passersby while vying for attention in a noisy, crowded, tourist-filled area. Working on site was invaluable in this process. They negotiated the obstacles of the space by utilizing large, eye-catching visuals: a performer garbed as a bedraggled mermaid, another with a giant sailing ship complete with bowsprit, masts and rigging.

Day-to-day interaction with the site informed the content as well as the form of "Hope & Anchor." After in-depth research, Zach knew that the piece would focus on highlighting the site's mercantile, maritime past. Time on site allowed him to weave these heightened, ghost-like images into the fabric of the Seaport's overwhelmingly commercial, modern topography. Hours of on site playing and planning gave birth to bizarre juxtapositions such as a shipwrecked maiden stumbling into the Gap, only to come out gasping for air as a shopping bag covered her head; a mermaid, unable to negotiate stairs using the wheelchair ramp instead; and a swarthy sea-wench ordering a happy-hour two-for-one.

Our new project comes with an entirely different set of challenges. Our connection with the site in Hong Kong is completely virtual. The presenter supplied us with photos and a video walk-thru, but it is still difficult to get a sense of where people assemble, what the flow is like at different times of day, things that we would know immediately after spending an hour on site but can only guess at until then.

Our initial steps in understanding the site were to get a feel for its geography, structures, and relationship to the rest of Hong Kong. Also, important is understanding its commercial and social histories. We started by researching what exists today in the areas of Taikoo Place and Quarry Bay. And then we began researching historical factors relating to the Taikoo Sugar Refinery, which occupied the area prior to recent development. Likewise, it was valuable for us to begin connecting with other artists in Hong Kong, through mutual colleagues, to understand what artists there are doing and to get their perspectives on what to look for.

Photo of Tong Chong Street

But, decisions have to be made. The presenter needs to know what specific areas we will use, what our entrances, exits, and staging areas will be, and what we need in terms of lighting for the pre-event cocktail performance the night before. And, as always with dance, there are photos and descriptions needed in advance for marketing and press purposes, especially difficult to come by when working site-specifically.

For us, it basically boils down to the fact that site work never really becomes specific enough until it inhabits its space. So much depends on every detail of its architecture; and although a corner is a corner and a cobblestone a cobblestone wherever you go, its particular context is always different.
To other artists who have created site work for spaces that they have had only limited access to: what were the greatest challenges for you and what methods were successful in preparing for the unknown?

In our next entry Zach will report on our findings from our research and what we have begun creating as a result.

Please visit us at
www.thirdrailprojects.com for more photos and video clips!

No comments: