Tuxedos. Floor-length gowns. Cocktails. Hors d’oeuvres. Draped tables. And … wait? Is that a barefoot dancer over there?
Last night, I joined six other dancers in a site-specific improvisational commission at the National Building Museum’s annual Honor Award Gala. It was a spontaneous performance for many of us—I myself found out about it a mere two hours beforehand—but it quickly became one of my most beautiful and memorable dancing experiences.
Totally unaware of the splendor of the Building Museum before this event, I found myself breathless when I first walked in. If you’ve never been to the National Building Museum, get yourself there as soon as possible, and be sure to bring your camera. Seriously. Opening itself to a majestic floor-to-ceiling lobby almost the size of a football field across and 75 feet up, the space is divided by enormous ornate columns—some of the largest in the world. Look up and twirl around and you’ll see the lobby lined with the buildings floors, fringed by arced décor that reminds of St. Marc’s basilica in Venice.
As the cast made its way up, down, and around to get acquainted with the building, Dance Exchange company member Sarah Levitt explained that our task for the evening was to transition guests from one segment of the evening to the next through improvisation. In our improvisation, she continued, we should make relationships with each other and the architecture and shapes of the edges, structures, and elements of the space. “This space is so amazing that really anything will look interesting,” she said in awe of the marbled columns and spanning Great Hall. No argument on that one, Sarah. I could tell immediately that a space like that was a dream for a dancer, especially in improvisation. I was so excited! Not only were we going to be able to use our bodies to explore the incredible architecture itself, but splashes of luminescent purple and green fabrics draped carefully as backdrops, artfully constructed plates of food, and a giant pyramid-shaped projector hanging from the ceiling were going to be part of our performance space. Oh, and hundreds of people dressed as if they were walking the red carpet.
One of the (many) things I love about modern dance is that it is easily removed from a recognizable dance environment and dropped right in the middle of pretty much any situation. In my days I’ve danced around benches along the street, on the quad of my college campus, and even around trees and mailboxes along a street in Italy. Among party guests at the most glamorous event I’ve ever been to? That was a new one for sure. It was going to be a whole new ball game for me. Challenge accepted!
Following a loose structure of spacing and theme for movement, we began the evening of improvisation by slithering our selves through the crowd of mingling guests, who spilled out of a cocktail room into the hallway during the first part of the event—a cocktail hour. We slowly stacked ourselves in a line through the crowd, creating and shifting into shapes by relating to each other and the space. With surprised and curious reactions from party guests, we made our around and in between the conversations with shape-inspired movement. Eventually we moved our way to corners and gaps in space in the hallway and in the party room, continuing to improvise with the space. As guests became more familiar with turning a corner to see a dancer along their path to the bar, we eventually became a part of the scenery that people seemed to enjoy. Personally I received a few confused looks, but also many smiles, questions, and even a couple high fives as I struck a pose with a raised arm and flat (and apparently slappable!) hand. I even had a few party guests imitate me as I twirled, posed, and spiraled my way past them, all in a fun and lively spirit.
Eventually, it was our task to help lead guests towards and down the stairs to the next part of the evening taking place in the lobby. Using gathering and directional gestures, we helped point guests towards the stairs, and draped ourselves along the stairwell as they descended into the Great Hall. We then welcomed the group into the lobby with joyful improvisation before we faded away to allow the evening’s official festivities to begin.
Our next appearance helped encourage guests to take their seats, we formed a festive structure called a second line, in which we followed behind a few horn-players from the evening’s New Orleans-style jazz band. Moving away from the abstract movement we know and love, we brought out the jazz hands, swinging legs, and sugar walks to capture the changed and elated energy of the live musicians interrupting the quiet mingling. As we boogied to the staccato jazz, we each carried a few pieces of blue foam-like blocks in all shapes and sizes, taken from a work-in-progress structure of piled shapes. We had taken them from an abstract structure sitting in the backdrop of the Great Hall (the evening’s keynote speaker explained later that these were pieces from a playground constructed in a devastated neighborhood as a part of a commissioned architectural project). After making our rounds, we playfully added our pieces to the structure and moved about the shapes, engaging in the parts and the whole as it came together.
Our last task was to encourage guests to enjoy the jazz band on the dance floor, as we were the first on the floor with snaps and claps, eventually bringing some guests to come enjoy the music with us. Once we got the group boogying, we left them to it and called it a night.
Part II elaborates on the evening’s keynote address about elements of play, which beautifully parallel concepts of dance. Plus, video clips of us dancers in action!