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Post details: The Performing Arts in Williamsburg and Agora II

08/31/06

The Performing Arts in Williamsburg and Agora II

A Year of Highlights Past and Present

By Jessica Williams

Artists are masters at finding a functional, delicate equilibrium between the past and present. Through art, past experiences and memories are given immediate relevancy.

This is true even when examining the current performing arts scene that resides among the old buildings and structures that belong to Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick. What sets this inventive landscape apart from art hubs like that of nearby government-subsidized arts district Fort Greene is its liberal artistic independence. Sometimes, though, there is a price to pay for said freedom, and that’s the lack of control over present-day factors such as rising real estate prices, which could offset this charming balance. One example of this, WAX, an ad-hoc black box theater, lost its lease in the fall of 2004 to make way for luxury lofts.

Over a year ago, the City Council passed a rezoning plan of the North side and Greenpoint waterfront that will likely result in the creation of about 10,000 mostly high-end condominiums and apartments over the next ten years. The uptick in real estate has some artists and presenters wondering if they can stay when the lease runs out. One such theater company, Proto-type, has already relocated to South Park Slope. Artistic Director Peter Petralia commented in a simple e-mail message: “We were priced out.”

Regardless of the area’s future, there is no doubt that the impermanent cheap space and variety of informal performance venues have encouraged open and honest experimentation, establishing a steady stream of original work, a multitude of cutting-edge, hybrid art encompassing speech, dance, sound and visual design.

Rarely a love at first sight, the avant garde demands one to leave all expectations at the door and allow the mind to absorb pieces of the story to reveal a larger intoxicating picture. In comparison to the Fort Greene area, where BAM quite often presents artists and movements once considered avant garde in the 70s and 80s, sites in Williamsburg, such as Triskelion Arts, CAVE, Context Studios and Chez Bushwick, afford groups the opportunity to freely present fresh, contemporary work without restrictions.

When asked to compare apples with oranges, Eva Barnett, assistant to CAVE directors Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya, observed, “The Williamsburg dance scene may have a tendency to be less commercial than that of Manhattan. But to be honest, I think you could find dance that is pushing the boundaries in Manhattan just as well as around here. Venues such as Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea, and Dance New Amsterdam on the Lower East Side, have some versatile and interesting programming to offer. But I guess there is something to be said about the “do it yourself” attitude of the Williamsburg art scene in general; the kind of crude production quality that you might have a harder time finding in Manhattan.”

A YEAR IN REVIEW AND MORE TO COME

In spite of more gentrification to come, North Brooklyn artists are sticking to their guns after the real-estate boom and seem to be centralizing again through open-ended collaborations and salon-like events.

“We plan on staying as we have space to grow and so does Brooklyn,” says Victoria McNichol Kelly, of Studio 111. Many amusing and special happenings occurred over the past 12 months and exciting plans are in store for the year to come. Here is a run-through of delightful events past and present.

In September, atmosphere manipulator Noemie LaFrance turned Greenpoint’s McCarren pool, a long-abandoned giant hole in the ground, into a visceral concrete playground, engaging audience members at different levels of perception in the widely anticipated site-specific dance production of “Agora.” Many wonder what is next for this historic relic. LaFrance and others want to open the park permanently by the summer of 2007 as “a unique place in the world that is representative of the innovative and creative splendor of our neighborhood and city.” In the meantime, LaFrance is busy at work on Agora II, which will premiere this fall in the same structure. For the first Agora, she collaborated with local artists and will do so again to apply the finishing touches to Agora II.

Perhaps the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center could use the help of someone as brave as LaFrance. In 1996, Yuko Nii & Terrance Lindall reopened the Kings County Savings Bank as a multi-purpose arts center, offering health clinics and resources to local artists. Unfortunately, this historic landmark with French Second Empire design is in need of restoration and has been closed for some time, in need of a fire escape installed.

Fewer burnt-out resources remain in abundance by way of various organizations throughout the area. CAVE, founded by Shige Moriya (director) and Naoki Iwakawa (artist in residence) recently celebrated a ten year anniversary while conducting the biannual New York Butoh Festival, presented in various New York theaters last October. The next Butoh festival will hit the stage again in the fall of 2007. New programs are being devised as CAVE shifts its focus to support an environment for exchange and exploration by opening the front space as a workshop/training and rehearsal arena open to the public.

Keeping a garage door open to the community, Streb Lab for Action Mechanics offers children’s classes and allows stragglers to wander in and view the skudges, rolls and flops in action at their garage on North First Street. Aside from their ongoing performances in non-traditional arenas, STREB Company members were featured in LaFrance’s Agora, last seen jumping horizontally into huge kiddy pools.


(Left) Abby Bender Schmantze Theatre's "ZOO" at
Triskelion Arts. Photo by Willy Somma

Context Studios has been available to all art mediums for six years since it relocated to Williamsburg from the Lower East Side in 2000. Primarily a film, video, and music studio, it also offers space for rehearsals and the occasional limited engagement performance while providing artistic vision assistance. One such show last fall forced audiences to expand their traditional pre-conceived views of dance with DD Dorvillier’s presentation of “No Change”, or ‘freedom is a psycho-kinetic skill.'Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote of this event, “the evening belongs to Ms. Dorvillier, a louche child who pensively trails microphones...and gives herself a few tasks, including a prolonged and dogged attempt to wriggle back, reclining and bare-bottomed, into jeans with a live microphone in one pocket. She is a treasure.”

Also providing rehearsal and performance space to actors/theater companies, dancers/dance companies, Butoh artists, film makers, clowns and puppeteers, Studio 111 plans to collaborate with other Brooklyn studios to have a Brooklyn arts festival possibly this fall. Already in the works are regular film and special benefit nights. For now, keep an eye out for their ongoing monthly “Undone” series, a works in progress mixed bill that allows artists to receive constructive feedback.

Stimulating monthly series scatter throughout the area and are a must see. First, one should make it out to Bushwick to see Miguel Gutierrez’ curated “Shtudio Show” the third Saturday of every month. It consists of multi-disciplinary performances, readings, and a discussion (finally, open thought-provoking banter) emceed by Technopia. Held at Chez Bushwick, this in-loft studio was founded by Jonah Bokaer and is facilitated by both Lauren Dempster and Jeremy Wade. In October, the series featured a naked Kayvon Pouravar urinating into a bowl. Entry is a mere five dollars and worth the challenge in this anything-goes environment. Also, for an unheard-of regular rate of five dollars per hour, Chez Bushwick offers rehearsal space as a recipient of DTW’s Outer/space Grant. The program awards funding in order for studios to stay afloat and simultaneously offer dancers affordable rehearsal space.

Secondly, every Friday, one can wander to the back of Galapagos at about 8 p.m. and experience the Evolve Series, curated by artistic director Travis Chamberlain and featuring a new off-off Broadway theater luminary every month. Order drinks and allow the fusion of theater, music and dance take over. Galapagos wins the most successful-random-presenter-of-the year-award. Only at Galapagos can one see an ongoing vast variety of burlesque, jazz, rock, comedy, theater, film, dance and everything but the kitchen sink. Kudos to liquor licenses, a financial anchor of performance venues.

More monthlies await one’s personal enjoyment at the Brick. Since 2003, Brick-a-Brack runs the first Sunday of every month at 7 p.m. and features short works from all media. Now that summer is upon us, The Brick has sold out just in time to present this year’s summer festival, jam-packed with Bruce Willis, Anna Nicole Smith, The Olsen Twins, Free Swag and Boobs. “The $ellout Festival” follows last year’s theme of “Moral Values.” Memorable features from last summer were “Dear Dubya” and Ian Hill’s “World Gone Wrong.” This year should be just as marvelous and it is highly suggested to see at least one performance in this fun summer flair. This September, the New York Clown Theater Festival comes to the Brick. What is Clown Theater you ask? Well, do the math. The Brick is a gem, offering outstanding, fun, professional off-off Broadway Theater.

Other theater experts are just a walk away. The Charlie Pineapple Theater, a quaint, intimate room of chairs and a set presents a number of linear plots, second to none in the area. This fall, the Vanderbeets family presents Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Banana Bag & Bodice performs in various Williamsburg venues while providing amusing, engaging theater. After performing “Panel” at the Collapsable Hole last year, they are gearing up for a performance of “The Sewers” at the Ontological Theatre in Manhattan.

Sharing the Collapsable Hole venue is RadioHole, fresh off of a run of their eighth original theater/performance piece "Fluke: The Myriad Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep or Dick Dick Dick" over at PS122. They will return to The Collapsable Hole working on the next installment of the piece throughout the fall culminating in a month long run there in January. In the meantime, they are to present the annual Mermaid Party at The Collapsable Hole June 24 - “an always glittering, glistening, lusciously wet affair.” They will be collaborating with Noemie LaFrance this August in “Agora II.”

For more information on these and others:

AQUI THE BUSHWICK, 249-55 Varet Street, 917-586-6735

BANANA BAG AND BODICE, www.bananabagandbodice.org

BRICK THEATER, 575 Metropolitan Avenue, 718-907-6189, www.bricktheater.com

CAVE, 58 Grand Street, 718-388-6780, www.caveartspace.org

CHARLIE PINEAPPLE THEATER, www.charliepineapple.com

CHEZ BUSHWICK, 304 Boerum Street (No.11)

COLLAPSABLE HOLE, home of Collapsable Giraffe and Radiohole, 146 Metropolitan Avenue, 718-388-2251, www.collapsablegiraffe.org

CONTEXT STUDIOS, 1 North 12th Street, 718-384-8300, www.contextnyc.com

GALAPAGOS ART SPACE, 70 North Sixth Street, 718-384-4586, www.galapagosartspace.com

RADIOHOLE, www.radiohole.com

SOUNDANCE AT THE STABLE, 281 North Seventh Street, 212-946-1771, www.stabledanceyoga.com

STREB LAB FOR ACTION MECHANICS, 51 North First Street, 718-384-649, www.strebusa.org

STUDIO 111, 111 Conselyea Street, No. 2L, 718-387-2630, www.studio111.org

TRISKELION ARTS, 118 North 11th Street, 718-599-3577, www.triskelionarts.org

WILLIAMSBURG ART AND HISTORICAL CENTER, 135 Broadway, 718-486-7372, www.wahcenter.net

Sens/Noemie LaFrance, www.sensproduction.org
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Agora II Fills McCarren Pool
September 13th – September 30th
By Jessica Williams

Last year, Noemie LaFrance and non-profit organization, Sens Production presented “Agora” at McCarren Pool in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Closed since 1983, countless community attempts have been made to update and restore the historic relic. A new, ongoing attempt is in motion with the help of choreographer Noemie LaFrance. She admits that the planning process has not been a cohesive one, largely due to decentralized responsibility for the restoration. Roughly quoted at costing $4 million to fully restore, ideas are being thrown around in community meetings. Last year, the parks department turned down a proposal Noemie wrote for an additional $2 million; meanwhile, it is unclear what the city’s involvement will be in lending a helping hand. Community members complain that there is no obvious practical solution to raise the money.

Noemie on the other hand, believes, “action will always prevail over ideas. To actually implement an idea will always be a stronger statement. It’s hard to get everyone lined up on an idea, but when you’re doing it, it’s clear.” While envisioning the site as a future recreational and cultural facility, Noemie helped fundraise over $250,000 to prepare the pool last August for a grand opening to public performances, including dance, film and music concerts.

Sticking to the plan at hand, Noemie melds vision with focus. “We don’t stop. The space could be a very interesting place- people lose interest and faith in America. I refuse to go with that. We need to have nice, interesting, recreational and cultural spaces. We can have that if we want to. We have to make it happen, so that the space could be fixed much better. It could have so many more things.” To reach such a dream, she has been building awareness within and outside of the community of Greenpoint with her presentation of “Agora.” Noemie comments, “We’re really at the genesis, people are finally seeing it. Four thousand people showed up to the concerts. This space is going to get a lot of usage. People are waking up. That’s right; we can use it.”

Continuing her persistent efforts, this year, Noemie is back at it again, preparing for yet another site-specific dance performance at McCarren Pool. Last September, “Agora” introduced a market place and groups of individuals celebrating, playing, dancing and running. Just like its prequel, Agora II will engage audience members in visual dialogues with multiple directions of viewing. Only this time, the audience can experience the action from inside this vast, enormous structure. Set up as a game, spectator and performer will become one as the individual discovers a collective unity while working on aesthetic tasks in teams. The result will be an artistic effect, which is contradictory to the purpose of a game but the ultimate goal here is to question the mystery of the collective.

Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Typically, Noemie’s dances draw inspiration from the architecture in which her pieces are set. For Agora II, she will focus on the mystifying the vastness of McCarren Pool and juxtapose that around groups of bodies in the open space. During a recent phone interview, Noemie explained while cooking oysters, “Size is related to our bodies. The earth seems too big for us. You don’t even see the curve of the horizon. I’m interested in how the body looks ineffective in that space and looks like one cannot take that space over unless they are part of a group.”

A mélange of performers and local characters will morph in and out of the space, providing the gray area necessary for this dance happening. There will be “player” and “viewer” tickets on sale. The former will be sold for less than the latter. “There is irony in that and practicality.” Confirmed collaborators from the community working with Sens Production this year are Radiohole, The Breakscrew, Malcolm and the hula hoop entourage, Daria Fain, Celeste Hastings and the Butoh Rockers, Elizabeth Streb and Young Dance Collective.

Agora II opens on September 13th and runs through September 30th, Wednesday thru Saturday. McCarren Pool is located at Lorimer Street between Driggs and Bayard. For more information and tickets, visit www.sensproduction.org.

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