Art

Pharma-Cultural Landscapes

A view of the performance in Storefront from Kenmare Street (image courtesy Storefront)

During a brief two-week run, Storefront for Art and Architecture was transformed into a laboratory by the creative team of Harrison Atelier (HAt) in their latest iteration of dance-installation titled Pharmacophore: Architectural Placebo.

Choreographer Silas Riener (photo by the author)

Conceived, dramaturged, directed and designed by the husband and wife team of Seth Harrison and Ariane Lourie Harrison the project explores “the cultural and philosophical economy that surrounds medicine, technology, and the human prospect.” Quite a heady agenda.

Architectural Placebo is the third installment in HAt’s Pharmacophore series of design-dance hybrids. HAt developed two prior versions: a ten-minute performance at Storefront in December 2010 with dance team Catherine Miller and James McGinn; and a full length performance at the Orpheus Theater in August 2011. For this iteration HAt collaborated with dancer/choreographer Silas Riener, who currently dances for Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Bringing such lofty scientific terms and advanced terminology into a project certainly carries the risk of alienating an audience unaccustomed to such things. Pharmacophore is certainly unique in concept, but audiences don’t have to know much about the science of pharmacology or macrobiotics to appreciate this. The project is exceptionally designed and presented. And I’m sure that having a couple of dancers from the Cunningham company involved doesn’t hurt.

Architectural Placebo incorporates nearly every inch of the uniquely triangular ground-level space on Kenmare Street. It is perfectly suited for the complexities of HAt’s collaboration. Dancers Rashaun Mitchell, Jamie Scott and Melissa Toogood join Silas Riener and cellist Loren Dempster offers live accompaniment and original score.

The custom-contoured seats are suggestive of medical apparatus offer the audience a place to sit. (image by the author)

HAt set out to create a “pharma-cultural landscape.” The installation consists of 24 eight-foot-tall, tempered glass plates that run the entire length of Storefront’s 100-feet-long back wall, which is backlit in blue neon (lighting designed by Aaron Copp and Nick Houfek). It appears like a cross between a radiological suite and futuristic space ship.

Custom contoured seats, suggestive of medical apparatus, offer the audience a place to sit. My iPhone fit nicely into one of the recessed spaces sculpted into shallow arm rests and in another small space, as I understand, one could place their pills if they had them. A plastic glass filled with either water (placebo?) or vodka (drug?) is placed on the right. Inflatable columnar forms lined the backs of the seats to cushion one’s back or function as an armrest. The inflatable forms are also used as set pieces, costumes and props throughout the performance. I must say, the installation is quite overwhelming.

Reiner climbs through the space (photo by the author)

As the performance begins, the four dancers, dressed in black, wear opaque lab coats and stand behind the four black steel supportive columns original to the space. They are lit from a light source from above. Dempster’s cello resonates throughout the gallery, as one by one the dancers congregate at the narrow end of the triangular gallery and steadily step their way through the space. Their movement is predictably sterile with clean lines and raised arms perhaps indicating simple allotropes. Dancers pose in studied profiles, like Kronos in parallel. They are particularly interested in activating the space in between like the careful marking and special relationships one might expect from Cunningham trained dancers. The movement remains basilar, grounded, without aggravated jumps or aggressive partnering.

Dancing in Storefront's door passages (photo by the author)

To produce any pharmacological effect, a minimum three-point attachment of a drug to a receptor site is required. It seems rather fitting then when a trio begins to form around Reiner, supporting his back bends and forward falls. The three even begin to tag him with protein-like properties that take the form of inflatable benzene rings. Dempster converts to an electronic score and things get more interesting as the trio converge on Reiner, now on the floor, rolling him up and forcing him through the paneled façade and onto the street.

The slightest changes in the molecular structure of a drug can drastically change specificity. It’s at this point when I wonder whether or not it’s actually water or vodka I’ve been sipping. Reiner and Mitchell begin to manipulate Storefront’s façade. The gallery’s renowned paneled exterior facade plays perfectly into HAt’s world, acting once as a walled laboratory with experiments mixing within, and next as a porous proscenium where dancers begin to climb, crawl and wander. Dancers Scott and Toogood pair up in the center in an improvised series of fluid, connected movements as if reacting to the waves made by the changing façade.

Having been bathed in blue neon, the light from the street has the most remarkable red glow. Just as the space opens up, so does the choreography and the façade is constantly being manipulated by the dancers. The most enjoyable aspect of the performance is catching bits and glimpses of the dancing happening out on the street.

The performance is successful in so many ways but best in how it totally blurs the border between place and non-place, inside and out, audience and non-audience, performer and pedestrian. It strikes the right balance between design and choreography with neither out doing the other. It’s egoless in its virtuosity.

The final performance of Pharmacophore: Architectural Placebo was November 30, and the installation has been extended until December 10 at Storefront for Art and Architecture (97 Kenmare Street, Soho, Manhattan)

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