“I FEEL TOTALLY SPUN OUT.”
That’s a note from 4:24 PM Saturday, two hours shy of having experienced twelve hours, spread over two weekends, of THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, a series of dances unfurling on Governors Island as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival, in makeshift locations ranging from carpeted office space to cavernous basement to the dry moat surrounding a nineteenth-century fort.
My dizziness was mild in the scheme of things: For the twenty-seven performers, the entire marathon spanned twenty-four hours (each day-long program ran twice), much of the intense, exquisite action taking place in humid air, on such unforgiving surfaces as stone and cement. And for the creators, dance artists Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey, it was the culmination of a five-year project spanning multiple continents and cultures. You could feel the time and care embedded in this work, like a finely woven fabric you might rub between thumb and forefinger.
Each of the dances in THE SET UP grew from a period of study with an artist immersed in a particular tradition: Nyoman Catra (Balinese Topeng), Proeung Chhieng (Cambodian), Junko Fisher (Okinawan), Saya Lei (Mandalay-style, classical Burmese), Jean-Christophe Paré (French baroque), Kapila Venu (Indian Kutiyattam), and Heni Winahyuningsih (Javanese refined). The resulting works were created in collaboration with these “masters,” as they were termed, and with the various casts, including the composers Jonathan Bepler, Reiko Fueting, and Megan Schubert.
I’d caught iterations of some of these pieces over the years. To see and hear them all in one place, for what was likely the only time, was overwhelming—a welter of movement impulses, values, and histories, interwoven with spoken and recorded texts by Lacey and Cardona and live music, full of percussion and voice and its own complex stew of influences and customs.
Picking out moments to describe the whole feels Sisyphean, but here are a few confused fragments: sitting cross-legged in a dim and cool tunnel at the fort, the wind blowing grit into my eyes, Lacey suddenly sashay-sauntering across my field of vision in the grassy moat, her thumbs tucked into her belt, while above a ridge of earth Cardona, bedecked with ribbons, moved through a series of decorous, balletic steps; sitting on a mat in the basement, watching Silas Riener slide into a gorgeously held split, all the while eyeing Cardona like a sulky teenager, as Cardona got not quite to the split, held, and then fell stiffly forward; sweating on a folding chair in a weird, hot, carpeted room as a significantly pregnant Molly Lieber stamped and hopped on a wooden platform and Lacey cut through the space like a blade and Schubert repeatedly cut a deck of cards, speaking clipped phrases in a foreign language; the audience’s utter concentration in a little side room as Winahyuningsih coiled through internal rhythmic shifts, energies circling and mounting but never fully cresting.
Maybe more important than picking out moments is to try and describe the layering of disparate yet conversant virtuosities. It didn’t seem that Cardona, who appeared to be the main receiver for each form, was attempting to master any of these teachings in a pure sense (“pure,” he said at one point in answer to an audience question, “is a difficult word”). Rather he embodied them as fully as possible within his own prodigious training and sensitive readings. THE SET UP yielded complicated exchanges: According to a note in the program, Venu believes that the solo she created for Cardona is the first in the two-thousand-year-old Kutiyattam tradition “to depict a love story between two gay characters.” (The expressivity in Cardona’s face as he physically “told” this story was prodigious; Venu’s capacity for conveying states and characters, in her own solo, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.)
Lacey meanwhile ran (delicately!) amok through the dances, adroitly fracturing the deep concentration embodied by Cardona and layering into the mix a sensibility both wry and wild. The sheer smarts and ferocity of her slippery movement, and her ability to seamlessly switch registers, astonished, forming an indefinable yet essential tracery, a translation into an expanded set of languages. The other dancers belled out from their two interlocking systems of intelligence (with some, like Riener and Lieber, occupying more principal roles), and the musicians surrounded and invaded this precision with their own marvelously calibrated systems: The parts were great, the sum far greater.
All this live action was augmented by a visual design created in collaboration with Jamie Boyle, who crafted an installation full of drawings, scores, notes, videos, and images like an exploded traveler’s notebook, as well as rooms within rooms in the varied performance spaces. Traveling among these delicately wrought containers, I occasionally thought of a recording of Lacey’s breathless voice that accompanied the opening salvo, a short, stunner of a solo performed by Melissa Toogood:
this is a dance for islanders
it is good to be an islander—as an island is small—when you move far away you can conceivably fit the island into your new home country—sometimes even right into your new hometown
this dance is a ritual adapted from a traditional dance.
this ritual ensures the transposition of the home island onto a new environment.
Of course, as I think Cardona and Lacey are aware, such transpositions are ever fraught. During my two days on Governors Island, questions of appropriation and agency simmered continually in the conversations I had with fellow watchers. I understand these concerns and I see how parts of the work, particularly in isolation, might lend themselves to troubling readings. But for this receiver, THE SET UP seems a very important effort for white artists to be making — especially those who sit atop avant-garde lineages with ugly histories of claiming the sophisticated traditions of others as their own discoveries of natural phenomena.
Throughout the performance, Cardona and Lacey honored their collaborators’ complicated forms, offering the occasional contextualizing remarks, and weaving solo performances by Chhieng (feathery and honed), Venu, and Winahyuningsih within the larger flow, so that you could reflect on these artists as both traditional and experimental (and perhaps on why such categories persist, who they serve). THE SET UP is predicated not on taking a product out of context, but on asking (the seeking of permission is a crucial element) to study a process, to try and understand embodied knowledge from the inside-out. The results of this study are further complicated by Cardona and Lacey’s multilayered questioning and critique of their own histories.
This all sounds serious, and it was. It was also deeply weird and funny as hell. Watching THE SET UP I kept flashing on something an older choreographer once said to me about how strange and silly and porous downtown dance used to be before it curdled into a set of affects and stylistic markers. Nothing had yet curdled here. Everything overflowed. I left each day dazed, barefoot, feet slapping over warm pavement, dashing to catch the ferry that would take me from one island to another.
Wally Cardona and Jennifer Lacey’s THE SET UP: ISLAND GHOST SLEEP PRINCESS TIME STORY SHOW, made in collaboration with Proeung Chhieng, Junko Fisher, Saya Lei, Jean-Christophe Paré, Kapila Venu, Heni Winahyuningsih, Jonathan Bepler, Reiko Fueting, and Megan Schubert, ran June 17 through 25 at the Arts Center at Governors Island as part of LMCC’s River to River Festival.