Union Square Experiments Overview

Editor's note: Zena Bibler was kind enough to provide us with a window into her Union Square "dansperiment" that we mentioned earlier this week. See that post for links to the project map and blog.

 Union Square Experiment - 2nd Capture

We include in our pattern a man sitting on a railing. We sunbathe upside down, but only upside down in relation to the scores of people who are in the same position right-side up.  We stand still—not a particularly noteworthy activity—unless it’s raining.  We jostle to get by each other even though we’re in the most expansive part of the Square. We lean against a pole, and then another, and then another. We glance side to side. We sit next to people we don’t know.  We turn look back and forth, watching the watchers, taking them in, connecting to them gesturally, but also dancing.  We make circles around a certain center, each larger than the last until we gradually eat up all of the space of the square, including bodies one at a time.  We turn trashcans into islands, and jump between them.  We look down drains, we look at each other, we look at the rest of the people in the park. When they look at us, we say hi, wave, or wink, destabilizing the distinction between performing and “just being” in the park.

Union Square is a site I pass through almost daily, often rushing to get from one place to another. Some days, I don’t even come up from the underground transportation hub that connects the 4, 5, 6 trains to the N, R, Q, W, and L trains, joining Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. People hurry beneath the surface, connecting the boroughs that make the city, animating it in a way that is not visible but tactile. A watcher sitting in the square feels the ground shake as the trains rumble through and might notice the travelers passing in and out of the subway stations like ants in strategically constructed piles of sand. 

The above-ground plane is no less traveled. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, the square is home to the Greenmarket, another hub for people all over the city, tourists from abroad, and farm goods from the greater New York area. Visitors walk in the winter with cups of hot cider, tasting pieces of apples that lie on Styrofoam plates for potential buyers to try; high school kids check out the jelly samples, killing time on their way home; the man from DiPaula lures people in with the smell of ground turkey sausage. On days that the Greenmarket operates (especially in the winter), it dominates the park – especially since other recreational areas are under construction. On the West side, where the stalls are, there hardly seems to be a person who is not focused on the delicious apples, one of the only fruits still available in late winter. The first sunny afternoons warm enough to enjoy outside elicit a striking change of focus. The south end of the Square fills with humans facing upwards, sunning themselves like salamanders. 

In animating and defining the parameters of the space, how might these moving bodies be generative of Union Square’s identity?  

Ironically, the first use of Union Square, previously called Union Place because it marked the union of two main streets (the Bowery and Broadway), was a place where bodies went to rest. It was a potter’s field like so many Manhattan parks – a burial site and final resting place. Today it is also a resting place, albeit a more temporary one. The stillness of the resters and the watchers creates the movers and rushers as speedy blurs. At varying speeds, people move through the park: rushing, meandering, stalling, sitting, socializing, standing, pretending, dancing, maneuvering, pulling, pushing, being tugged, waiting, talking, listening, laboring, circling. 

I began with the project of making a dance to be performed in and with Union Square. Might it be possible, I asked myself, to dance with the bodies already in motion? How can we draw “non-dancing” bodies into our choreography in order to animate the space in a slightly different way? I saw this dance not only as a public offering in response to the current scarcity of affordable performance venues and as an attempt to blend the artificial boundary between street dance and concert dance. Most of all it was an experiment. How do the bodies in Union Square make the space around them? How do their bodies relate to each other? How are our dancer bodies, making movements outside the norm, received? When exactly do they cross the boundary between normal and outlier? Are we, because this is New York, simply ignored? When does the piece become a “show” to be watched by a group? 

Studying both the bodily techniques and the larger movement structures allow us to make a dance of “popping out” and “erupting”, in which we move between being bodies and people, being visible and blending in. Through these techniques we are subtly changing the usage of Union Square, temporarily re-graphing the space, and implicating those sharing the square in the process.  When are our spaces of the body different? When do our linkages stand out?

When are we using the wrong techniques?  It is my hope that people will be able to wander in digitally constructed space and artificially layered time through these dance experiments as they choose. Our danced synthesis of the Park works as a parallel process to Google Earth’s temporal and spatial panorama. Meanwhile the project is only a tiny part of an ever-evolving multiplicity of stories and flows that have, do, and will travel through the space.   What are we doing in Union Square Park? The question is often asked. Sometimes they answer for themselves:  Yoga? Acting. Gymnastics? Walking up and down the steps?  Dancing?  Nothing. Staging a resistance to normative Union Square Practices? Waiting?  Being?  Blessing the space? Celebrating spring?  Praise dance? 

The dances are constantly redefined in by the factors that choreograph: weather patterns mandate certain techniques of the body, cordoned-off areas that rotate around the park alternately obstruct, liberate, and change spaces in the park, the Greenmarket not only scripts action but creates a hub of a particular type of movement. The bodies that share the space we move in direct our movement just as the absence of bodies does. Using our bodies as modes of inquiry, not only dance but we are moved.  

We become them, we become us, we become we-and-them. The experiment continues.