On Sunday night, as the cloud-covered slate gray sky bruised to eggplant, Denver witnessed its first city-commissioned site-specific public dance performance. On the eastern most edge of the city Lemon Sponge Cake Contemporary Ballet performed, for the one and only time, at Babi Yar Park, a space built to commemorate a tragedy halfway around the world and over seventy years ago. In 1941, Nazis massacred nearly 34,000 Jews over a two-day period at Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, Ukraine. The Nazis continued to use the ravine as mass execution and grave site, killing an estimated 100,000 throughout the course of the war.
Originally completed in 1982 by Lawrence Halprin and Satoru Nishita (Nishita was himself interned as a Japanese American during World War II), Babi Yar Park sits at the corner of East Havana and East Yale Avenue. The 27-acre park features an amphitheater, a grove and a ravine around a pathway configured as a Star of David. Renovated in 2011 as part of a 2006 city bond campaign, the improvements to the park qualified for the city’s public art program, managed by Denver Arts & Venues, which states that any city-funded project over $1 million must put 1% of the budget towards art. Since 1988, Denver has amassed a collection of over 300 works of art which includes two other performance pieces.
Lemon Sponge Cake answered Arts & Venues’ request for qualifications and competed against 8 other applicants through a twelve-person jury that included former Councilwoman Peggy Lehman, artist and gallery owner Mike McClung and Mizel Museum curator Georgina Kolber for the$15,000 project. Rudi Cerri, Arts & Venues Public Art Administrator, said that due to the relatively small project budget and the park’s already well-curated landscape, a permanent physical didn’t feel right for the environment. Dance, on the other hand, presented an amazing and unique opportunity to activate the park and honor those thousands who died.
Robert Sher Machherndl, former principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet and Bavarian State Ballet, choreographed inside the circular platform at base of the bowl-shaped amphitheater known as the People’s Place. Sher Machherndl created a psychologically probing piece of poetry and beauty to perfectly match Halprin’s and Nishita’s somber, contemplative surroundings. A haunting and abstract soundtrack melds with the honks of geese, the rush of traffic, the wails of sirens that feel at once indifferent to the performance yet a part of it. Dancers Kimberly Chmielewski, who has performed with Hannah Kahn, Kim Robards and Apex Dance, Chelsea Davis, who has worked with Communitas Dance, Bailey Harper, also with Hannah Kahn and formerly with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, and Scarlett Wynne, who was born in Cologne, Germany and worked in Houston before coming to Colorado, enter the circle one by one and over a period of time. The dancers, dressed in white tank tops, denim leggings and black boots, shiver slightly in the crisp autumn air but nevertheless execute each movement with a grace that had everyone on the lawn holding their breath.
Sher Machherndl’s choreography captures the wide-reaching emotional turmoil of the Babi Yar victims: confusion, apprehension, denial, anger, fear. Whenever an arabesque occurs, it’s as if the dancer’s very life hangs in the balance. Later on the dancers rub their hands across their stomachs, heads and legs as if covered in fire ants; a motion Davis periodically reprises through the duration of the performance. At other times, the dancers write in the air with alternately bouts of fury or calm. A particularly rending scene occurs when Sher Machherndl runs in out of the dark. He stands behind Wynne as she slowly and carefully writes in the air, signing her name or “I was here”, before picking her up and carrying her, upside down, across the cement platform where he sets her back down and she continues writing as if nothing had happened enrapturing the blanket-bundled crowd.
But as the dancers curl up on the cement, a group of perhaps 50 kids jump up from the lawn and file into the platform to a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” by Jack Johnson. After the intimacy and poignancy of Lemon Sponge Cake, this section with the students feels heavy-handed and forced and as if Sher Machherndl didn’t trust his audience. While I can appreciate his efforts to involve the greater community and student dancers from several area dance schools, “White Mirror” required no such additions. Ultimately, though, “White Mirror” remains an historic and powerful work of public art, one I hope sets a precedent for future site-specific dance commissions.
As part of the project, Denver Arts & Venues will screen a film documenting the performance along with a panel discussion on January 27, 2016, National Holocaust Day.
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.