When choreographer Lauri Stallings brings site-specific dance to an urban public space, her charmed world enters our ordinary world, with unpredictable results — transcendent, fantastical, sometimes dangerous. Regardless of the outcomes, her goals are fairly consistent — to integrate art with the flow of daily life; to create situations where artists’ world and public sphere come together to invent fresh points of view through cultural exchange; to elevate the consumer into a supernumerary of the performance itself.
Her dance troupe, gloATL, is now immersed in “Liquid Culture,” a series of five performance installations (or “Utopia stations”) in four locations around town over 15 days. Three have been performed so far; the final “station” will take place Friday and Saturday, July 22 and 23, at Peachtree and 15th streets, an “in the round” intersection that Stallings has called the catalyst for the whole thing.
At this writing, the performances have taken place at Sol LeWitt’s Minimalist art installation “54 Columns” at Highland Avenue and Glen Iris Drive, the Lindbergh MARTA station and in Little Five Points. Not all the results have been Utopian, but the meeting of gloATL’s world with each of these locations, to compelling effect, has been no less revealing. (Above photo of gloATL dancers by Tijana L.)
Dancers and onlookers intermeshed so harmoniously within “54 Columns,” a group of 10-to-20-foot concrete pillars, that it seemed a model of Stallings’ relational aesthetic ideal. For about an hour, an audience that was mostly familiar with gloATL’s boundary-blurring philosophy intermingled with the work’s porous, changing shapes. The quiet, “passive” nature of LeWitt’s sculptural art seemed to bring audience and dancers into sympathy with one another, heightening the senses through real and immediate exchange that felt pleasurable and respectful.
Lightness and whimsy filled the Lindbergh MARTA station one hot, humid evening as the gloATL dancers chugged along, hips and elbows gently nudging outward, to a tapestry of ambient sounds: trains, buses and the station’s smooth-jazz elevator music. With glee, the dancers led people through the station and burst into openhearted, full-bodied, spontaneous movement. Workday burdens seemed to levitate like bubbles. This delightful public intervention gave me the feeling that, if something as wondrous as this could happen during an everyday commute, the world is full of possibilities.
The third performance, in Little Five Points, seemed the most daring and unpredictable, leaving me feeling unsettled and — perhaps this was a goal — uncomfortable.
At the beginning of the three-hour event on a cool, cloudy Friday evening, it seemed brilliant for Stallings to fill various storefronts in the bohemian shopping and entertainment district with live, movement-centered performance. Dancers moved up and down the sidewalks along Euclid Avenue, creating an immersive art experience that spanned from a hookah shop down to the Variety Playhouse. You’d spot them on the sidewalk, dressed as if to blend with the area and storefront themes, hair teased up, wearing false eyelashes and many in thigh-high socks without shoes. They’d walk slightly more slowly than the norm, sensing the body’s interior, eyes scanning the outer world, hyperaware yet somehow dissociated from the ordinary sidewalk activity. It was another way of breaking convention by mashing a performance world together with the everyday world. (Photos from Little Five Points event by Tom Zarrilli.)
But Little Five Points isn’t an ordinary place. Its folk and rock music clubs, bars, record stores, vintage clothing sellers, ethnic restaurants and importers still offer the trappings of 1960s counterculture. Its characters have their own clothing and hair styles, tattoos, body piercings and codes of behavior. The neighborhood itself is a venue, with street poets, musicians, beggars and even dancers; it already offers an immersive cultural experience.
In many ways, gloATL strived to blend in. Two dancers in flesh-colored leotards and tights performed a lead-and-follow improvisation in a clothing store window. Next door, a man and woman dressed in black evening wear danced in a bicycle shop. Farther down Euclid, in a used clothing shop, dancer Virginia Coleman seemed cramped inside a two-dimensional camping scene, negotiating her long limbs in a tiny, flat space cluttered with mannequins, props and scenery.
At the gravity point, near where five streets intersect, the sidewalk broadens into a small paved triangle of park space. A crowd gathered in front of a record shop window — “the cage,” dancers called it — where the dancers took turns improvising on a few themes inside small glass-front boxes, their bright-colored underwear matching the display case’s cartoon-like backdrops. Three or four dancers sat outside the storefront like the park’s loiterers and drug addicts, staring blankly at the gathering crowd that watched the dancers behind the glass.
In some ways, the Little Five Points station seemed to challenge Stallings’ artistic philosophy. Dancing behind glass seemed to prevent, rather than foster, interpersonal relations. And instead of enabling the artists to bypass consumerism, the window displays — shallow imitations of life — seemed to hold them captive.
At times, dancers gathered on the sidewalk while drummers jammed in front of the African drum-and-trinket shop next door. At one point, a man in a yellow vest stepped in front of the crowd and began breakdancing, innocent and welcome at first. But then he began to threaten the work itself.
With slurred speech, he told the crowd that he was going to show them how to dance. Dancers dispersed, leaving Mary Jane Pennington alone behind the glass. The man confronted her, pointed to her shorts and said, “Take it off.” He drew an “X” with his finger on the glass and started banging on the window. Three men, friends of gloATL, coaxed him away, but he followed the performance to the end, as the dancers gathered in the twilight under the Variety Playhouse marquee, threatening the final shape of the work with his own street rhymes. Amazingly, the dancers defused his threat without breaking character, and finally dispersed mouthing the words “Don’t worry, be happy.”
Puzzled by what I’d seen, I later asked Stallings how her artistic ideals related to this event. She said the encounter with the man in the yellow vest was an example of French critic and theorist Nicolas Bourriaud’s philosophy of relational aesthetics, but twisted. I told her that it felt more uncomfortable to watch these dancers cramped into store windows for three hours than it felt to see them partly nude for moments in gloATL’s “Chapter III.” I told her how awful I felt at one point as I left Coleman alone, seeing her reach longingly toward me in slow motion as I walked away. I’d felt as if I’d abandoned her, trapped behind the glass. But then I had encountered a friend on the sidewalk heading toward her. “Go, be with Ginny,” I had urged him. “She’s all alone.”
“That,” Stallings explained, “is relational aesthetics.”