For the second time that day, I found myself transported from my all-too familiar surroundings to a world kissed with a childlike sense of wonder. I had spent my early afternoon trekking through LoDo’s alleyways, those oft-neglected circulatory systems of the urban core, with Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and NINE dot ARTS for a special WriteDenver event before heading south along the Platte River, veering just off Santa Fe Drive for “By River & Industry: A Walking Tour de Danse,” a collaborative, outdoor project featuring five dance companies/choreographers that runs through Sunday, October 16, 2016.
Inspired by the 40th anniversary of “By River and Wharf,” an outdoor dance performance near London’s Tower Bridge and in its Wharf District, “By River & Industry” takes audience members over the Platte, through the park, and around the industrial neighborhood surrounding a living arts centre, the performance’s home base. Maedée Duprés who owns a living arts centre performed in the 1976 “By River and Wharf” as a collective member of X6 Dance.
With over sixteen performances across as many different locations, “By River & Industry” shatters the fourth wall for a truly unique and at times magical audience experience in Denver’s dance community. The performance’s success can be attributed to its collaboration, innovation and an expansive scale. The five companies/choreographers include Maedée Duprés & Dancers, Projekt Move, Avatar Movement Dance Company, Colorado Youth Dance Theatre and Whitney Waugh Dance. The styles of dance range from tai chi to modern to musical theater, from one piece to the next the mood switches from whimsical to solemn to sorrowful to cheery. The myriad settings take audience members on top of berms, over bridges, down hills, outside auto body shops, box truck beds, parking lots, and street intersections.
The performance takes the audience on a hero’s journey of sorts. At first, deciphering what is or is not part of the performance adds to the novelty of the tour. The passing cars, bicyclists and pedestrians looked upon the scenes quizzically and curiously, which added to the entertainment. The audience buzzed with the same level of anticipation as an elementary school field trip, first watching Tai Chi across South Platte Drive. When a gaggle of girls swarm a vintage car (that is driven several times later on), their red-feather dusters slowly waving us on, the audience almost stops to ponder the scene despite Duprés’ ringing bells, which beckon the group forward to the next scene. Later on, the audience helps pass ceramic orbs down a line, is given chocolate coins, and walks in tandem with the performers back to the center.
Each individual performance varies in length from just a few moments to fifteen minutes. With some works, the dancers are inches away from the audience, close enough to smell their deodorant, hear them breathe, feel the air move from a turn or a kick. At other times, the dancers are over one hundred yards away, merely shapes. In addition to the diversity of settings, styles and moods, the performance also showcases dancers of several generations including teenagers, dancers in their fifties and sixties and everything in between.
Some pieces connect to tell a narrative, such as the story of a couple. First, we see their initial flirtatious meeting outside StreetDreamz, a vintage car retailer, where they mirror each other’s movements, practically swooning over each other with awkwardness and uncertainty. Our next encounter of the couple is in a nearby garage for a strained and painful exchange, the couple tripping over one another, repeatedly trying to connect and simultaneously pulling away from one. Their bodies touch, but not limbs or hands. In their final appearance together, we see them in their golden years, gray-haired yet still beautiful, the strain lessened, but there, if only a little. Other pieces like the one on the box truck bed, the fight on a driveway and the piece in front of the auto body shop almost reference West Side Story with their bandana-and-denim clad dancers, sweeping scale and upbeat music.
Another particularly impressive moment occurs as a small group of dancers, waving neon pink and purple fabric starts dancing a block away from the audience as it stands in the middle of an intersection. From so far away, the fabric takes on a bigger presence, flitting and flapping as if alive. But as the dancers inch their way towards the audience, the remainder of the dancers come from behind the audience to join them for a time before weaving themselves back through the audience.
Yet another fascinating scene occurs in front of a bush-entwined chain link fence. With the sun just hovering over the horizon, the dancers become silhouettes, their boots kicking up dust from the rough gravel below. A live guitar and a woman in a white dress reciting a soliloquy add a layer of drama. The woman says, “Crying is all I have…I shed tears like a snake sheds skin.” An element of deep depression, loneliness and heartache gives this piece its exquisite beauty.
“By the River & Industry” marks a new standard for Denver’s dance community – one based on ambition, expanding possibilities and a willingness to experiment. I kept thinking that to pull this off required the logistical tactics of a general, the diplomacy of an ambassador and the playfulness of a child. With Lemon Sponge Cake embracing outdoor public dance performances, I hope to see more companies following suit.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She works for Denver-based art consulting firm, NINE dot ARTS, where she helps companies tell their stories through art. She sits on the boards of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from DailyServing and Quaint Magazine.