At the River to River Festival, Performance Is Everywhere

“As we used to say in the ’90s, accessorize, don’t militarize,” yelled choreographer Miguel Gutierrez as a crowd gathered before him in Lower Manhattan’s Fosun Plaza. Participants obliged, adorning themselves in duochrome tule, sequined sashes, and gold fringe before joining him in an energetic choreography set to Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon.” 

The participatory dance event on June 7 signaled the beginning of the annual Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) River to River Festival — a series of free performances in public spaces across downtown Manhattan last month.

The LMCC created the River to River Festival in 2002 with a reparative goal: to address residents’ collective fear and grief in the aftermath of 9/11. Organizers selected public art projects designed to facilitate connection and rebuild communities. Now, over two decades later, the festival serves as a key component of the LMCC’s broader efforts to support independent artmaking across the borough. 

The festival’s 13 projects cover a range of disciplines, from Samita Sinha’s Tremor, a performance art piece featuring Indian folk melodies and Hindustani vocal techniques in sonic protest against colonial politics, to multimedia installations by Leslie Cuyjet and jaamil olawale kosoko. On June 22, the festival concluded with a participatory event featuring conceptual art by Elisabeth Smolarz, who presented several ice cream flavors inspired by her experience on Governors Island. 

A focal point of this year’s programming was choreographer mayfield brooks’ whale fall abyss and whale fall reckoning, immersive theatrical experiences developed through four years of historical research that explore the intersections between slave ships and whaling practices. “The bodies of whales and the bodies of Black folks seem to have a kinship in how they have been both targeted, hunted, and consumed since the transatlantic slave trade,” brooks wrote in 2021.  

Staged on a 19th-century sailing ship, whale fall abyss began with an experimental dance on the main deck: brooks and performer Camilo Restrepo twist their partially-enrobed bodies slowly toward one another before meeting in tender embrace and vanishing down the cargo hatch. 

Participants then descended into the ship’s cargo hold, where brooks completed the show with haunting vocals set to dissonant tones by electronic cellist Dorothy Carlos. The spectral composition, echoing throughout the cavernous space, serves as an acknowledgement of the spirits and ancestors of the transatlantic slave trade. 

Brooks’s other work, whale fall reckoning, uses light arrangements, sound, and found objects to transform an industrial storage facility into the body of a dying whale. Rather than presenting the idea of rebirth from this underwater carcass, the performance urges a sort of collective decay. Brooks pushes the audience to sit with the harms of the past and present — with the feeling of what it means to be rendered excess. As they described in a 2021 statement, “This project was born out of a desire to sit with grief and rage in a world that discards too much and consumes too much.”

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