New York

Lenora Champagne

Art on the Beach, Chambers and West Streets

For the last seven years Creative Time has sponsored “Art on the Beach,” one of New York’s most unpredictable exhibition and performance programs, on the Battery Park landfill in lower Manhattan. This season marks the end of this innovative summer series of cross-disciplinary collaborations, since the high-rise condominiums and office buildings long planned for the site are now scheduled for construction. That’s a shame, because the stunning setting—the banks of dunes beside the Hudson River; the sweeping view of the harbor; the flanking wall of skyscrapers, dramatically lit (the performances took place just before sunset)—is irreplaceable.

One of the many provocative, successful works commissioned by this program was Lenora Champagne’s Eye of the Garden, 1985. Champagne fashioned a theater piece of magical realism from typically idiosyncratic source material—the photographs of Mother St. Croix, a French nun who was mother superior of the Ursuline convent in New Orleans. The episodic structure of the work captured with reverential exactitude the look and the feel of the rigidly ordered existence of the Ursulines, one of the oldest Catholic orders in the United States. Sixteen “novices,” dancer-performers in brilliant red dresses with demure white collars, convincingly evoked adolescent innocence and devout piety through numerous vignettes. Even at their most abstract, when they appeared to be a formally choreographed unit, their gestures and demeanor were clearly rooted in religious behavior. Throughout, Champagne (as the mother superior) sat downstage center, periodically directing the tableaux with verbal commands and a bell. While the schematic, almost sketchy character of the piece was somewhat clichéd, Champagne’s unpretentious presence and the intent performance by the enthusiastic cast drew an emotionally persuasive portrait of an obscure, ritualistic way of life.

Garden was completed by two equally unexpected components. The set by Claudia Fitch—a “garden” of fluorescent-pink fencing and fabricated trees (the adjacent grandstand was similarly decked out)—was in ironic contrast to the earnestness of composer Glen Velez’s music—a Third World “primitive” score performed on North African drums, tambourines, a Sruti box (a droning instrument), and thumb piano to harmonic vocal accompaniment. In the sometimes inexplicable resolution unique to performance, these unlikely elements blended perfectly with the stylized rituals of Catholicism to create a magically compelling hour of theater and dance.

John Howell