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“If you want to survive the 19th century,” Allison Meier wryly observed, “don’t get on a boat or go to the theater.” Meier, who has been giving tours of cemeteries in New York City since 2011 (and is a Hyperallergic staff writer), held aloft a lantern illuminating the granite obelisk marking the mass grave of 103 people who perished in the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876.
As we listened to Meier and watched the shadows cast from her lantern and the torches surrounding the monument, a woman began to sing a melancholic aria in the distance. With a nip in the air and a just-waning full moon, we followed cobbled paths lit with tealights toward the disembodied voice. Amid the trees and marble monuments, we could catch breathtaking glimpses of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan, including the September 11th memorial “Tribute in Light.”
The event, “Crossing Over: A Performance Adventure in Green-Wood Cemetery,” was a collaboration between Brooklyn’s BEAT Festival and Atlas Obscura, a travel website dedicated to the mysterious and underexplored, hosted by Green-Wood Cemetery. As the sun set that evening, Meier led us on a two-hour, performance-filled journey through 478 rambling acres of landscape and history.
In their most simplistic terms, cemeteries are symbols of death: reminders of our future and gateways to our past. They are places of heritage and ghost stories, but also of growth and greenery, and for those reasons the living have long enjoyed hanging out in the home of the dead. Green-Wood’s rolling hills, weeping beeches, and glacial ponds have been a haven for New York residents and tourists since the 1830s — it is, as Meier put it, a “place that was always meant for the living.” The sheer gorgeousness of its flowering trees in spring or its hushed branches in winter is heart swelling. To paraphrase a quote attributed to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (referring to a different, Italian cemetery), the beauty of the place could make you fall in love with death.
As we moved toward the operatic voice, it grew louder but no less disorienting — where was it coming from? We stopped to face the dark outlines of mausoleums cut into a hillside. Scanning the night, a woman’s silhouette slowly came into view, hardly distinguishable from a gargoyle or statue; she seemed to blend in with the space just as her voice traveled over it. Spotting her, I realized there were other people standing nearby, on top of the mausoleums. The singing stopped and a low rumbling began, a guttural sound that seemed to come from within the earth. Then a light flared on one of the bodies, and then another, flickering on and off along the hillside. Each time a light shone on a body, it would fall slowly backwards, stiff as a board, as if in a trust fall.
The performance, created by the dance company LEIMAY, moved through a few iterations of this rising and falling in what was by far the most striking piece of the night. The landscape, sound design, and performers melded with one another so seamlessly, there were moments when I couldn’t distinguish one from the other: Was that a statue or a person? Is that rumbling from a speaker or the ground? The effectiveness of site-specific art relies in good measure on its symbiosis with the space.
From there, we wandered further into the darkness, encountering other performances along the way. A dancer (Shirel Jones) who appeared on our path disrobed and walked backwards into the light, where she performed a too-short dance before slipping back into the night. A vignette (choreographed by Sophia Schrank) at the tomb of William Niblo, New York City’s eminent pleasure garden proprietor, featured a jester and his muse, or possible long-lost love (Michael Cusimano and Chloe Markewic). It lacked in nuance what it had in repetition; the story pulsed tiringly on a supine plot. These performances felt too much like haunted trails and not enough like thoughtful investigations of their environment.
Creating art in a cemetery is both a very good idea and a very bad one. Creation — the use of the imaginative mind — is, in a way, the antithesis of being dead; it’s the essence of aliveness. In its most quixotic (but I don’t think unfair) definition, art is humanity’s best self — or at least evidence of our desire to become better selves. It suggests an almost aggressive agency against the complacency of death: bodies moving, creating, expressing things, bodies being.
But cemeteries, with their built-in narrative and air of spookiness, can booby-trap artists hoping to creating something engaging and exciting. It’s very easy to fall prey to their romance, rather than offering a new way to experience their space.
I also wonder if art performed in the grandeur of a cemetery like Green-Wood is partially doomed, not to failure necessarily, but to never quite match the numinousness, or more simply the sheer joy of walking through a graveyard on a cool summer evening. During “Crossing Over,” the sparkling tealights illuminated the paths (and potential hazards like tree stumps or roots) as well as beautifully weathered graves, then disappeared over hillsides. Votive candles swayed among breezy branches. The scene was so perfectly ethereal, it was easy to feel swept away not just in space, but time.
There’s a giddiness that comes with walking through a cemetery at night. Like the school field trips we took as children to other dark spaces — planetariums and IMAX theaters, places that elicit excited whispering among friends and tentative hand-holding with crushes — a graveyard in the dark holds a certain promise. Because the dead do not feel so utterly gone at night as they do in the day, their absence becomes a presence. The curious, the solitary, those in need of emptying out sorrows or filling a void — we all seek this incorporeal presence at some point. To borrow a phrase from author Meghan O’Rourke, it’s the promise of being “estranged from the normal,” of something sacred and secret and special.
For the evening’s final act, a flamenco dancer (Elisabet Torras Aguilera) performed a somber martinete in the catacombs. The space mimicked the caves and taverns where flamenco is often performed, except here, one could imagine the sound of the castanets rattling the bones harbored in the walls around us. This echoing of performance and space was wonderfully startling, a break from the other ghostly performances, which felt simply folded into the tour.
“Crossing Over: A Performance Adventure in Green-Wood Cemetery” took place September 12–13 in Green-Wood Cemetery (500 25th Street, Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn).