Flex and Flexibility: A Prelude to the Shed

The structure for A Prelude to The Shed, designed by architect Kunlé Adeymi of NLÉ Works. Photo Stephanie Berger.

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The founders of the Shed are hoping that when the new arts center opens next year it will change the landscape of New York performance. The claims for the $500 million venue are big—it will be a “haven for creative expression,” according to a statement on the website, and the shows announced so far have marquee names: Quincy Jones, Renée Fleming, Gerhard Richter, Chen Shi-Zheng, Sia, Steve Reich. Director Alex Poots says the Shed will not only program events but also operate as a developing producer and international launching pad for new works. At his previous gigs—the Manchester International Festival and the Park Avenue Armory—Poots orchestrated the kind of supergroup spectacles that he has planned for his new spot. But there’s some worry that shows built on the Traveling Wilburys model can be . . . bad. At the Armory in 2015, he brought over his MIF project Tree of Codes, a collaboration of Jamie xx, Wayne McGregor, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Olafur Eliasson. The multimedia dance performance based on a text by Foer was dazzlingly pedigreed but mostly dull. In terms of ticket sales it was a blockbuster, but as a piece of art it was a damp squib.

I visited the Shed’s site this spring, climbing to the High Line and wandering as close as I could to the buzzing construction zone on the far West Side. In early May, it looked like Blade Runner up there—the Hudson Yards area is jammed with architects making statements that all, depressingly, look the same. Though the Diller Scofidio + Renfro/Rockwell Group’s Shed is nonprofit, it anchors a development designed to yield huge profits. Glinting shards of luxury towers push up everywhere, the Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yards (opening 2019) have booked Lululemon and Patek Philippe, among other tenants, and the plaza’s 150-foot-tall centerpiece—a folly by architect Thomas Heatherwick called the Vessel—looms in the near distance. At this stage, the Shed’s movable translucent roof still looks more like a pill blister-pack than a luffing sail, but I have no doubt it will be huge and polished and glassy when it opens. Everything around there is huge and polished and glassy.

“A Prelude to the Shed,” a thirteen-day festival, had a much scrappier, earthier vibe. For the first half of May, Poots and six collaborators put together a free teaser-season to whet the public’s appetite for 2019. From the outside, the “Prelude” site, two blocks away from the Shed itself, looked like just another construction lot walled in by a 10-foot-high plywood hoarding. Once you found the “door” and came through the barricade of “ambassadors” with name tags and Shed-branded totes, you were in a rocky haven—a smooth concrete slab for the performance venue, a little raked gravel side-yard, a ditch with a sprinkler going (over the next week, this would become a pond with a car artistically upended in it as a set piece for electronic music diva Arca), a number of shipping containers, and an outcropping with a few café tables. It was instantly ingratiating, since the organizers were obviously making the best of a found space. The works presented were recycled, too, which gave the whole thing a gung-ho, make-do air.

All visitors received a booklet with a manifesto by curator and scholar Dorothea von Hanetlmann, who believes we need to move forward from the old forms (the cathedral, the theater, the museum) and find a “new ritual space for the twenty-first century” that focuses on an “interplay of gatherings.” This, von Hantelmann says at extreme and rather windy length, requires flexibility and communality. In response, architect Kunlé Adeyemi, the urbanist behind the Makoko Floating School (a community center on a Lagos lagoon), designed a temporary wood-and-corrugated-metal structure with a low flat roof and walls with built-in high-backed vinyl benches (communality), which could be pushed around like giant sliding theatrical flats (flexibility). In both its black-box and open-sided configurations, it seemed like a very nice picnic shelter. I hope they don’t throw it away.

In the evenings, there was an everchanging series of rollicking musical performances—like Arca smearing himself in fake blood in maenad ecstasy—and lectures on architecture. The sunshine hours, though, were full of the same set of interlinked performances, which ran daily from 11am to 6pm. Tino Sehgal revived This variation (2012), which debuted at Documenta 13. A company of singer-dancers stood around in the almost completely lightless space—Adeyemi’s low, flat box with the lights turned off. The few audience members bumbled around, feeling for the walls, bumping into performers or jumping when one materialized unnervingly close. The performers sang a cappella arrangements—beatbox rhythms and nonsense syllables that came hissing and ootz-ootz-ootzing out of the dark. This rather mild performance does certainly create a community, but out of the chorus rather than of those who had come to see it. We were scattered as ever, but they at least seemed fused together, sticking around to watch their fellows dance and sing as the events moved into dusk.

This variation shifted slowly into the next piece, Pas de Deux Cent Douze, a repurposed duet from William Forsythe’s 1987 ballet In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, now set to Azealia Banks’s debut banger “212.” The variation performers shoved at the walls to rotate them and let in sunlight from outside. This is the one moment when Sehgal’s piece became absolutely silly. Suddenly visible, the company looked like an American Apparel magazine spread, appearing first in poses of artful boredom and then sprawled on the ground outside. Luckily they quickly scooched out of the way for the brief Forsythe duet, danced superbly by Roderick George and Josh Johnson, who slid on the polished concrete plaza, then launched into the beautiful partnered lifts that rocked the dance world thirty years ago. The presentation was distinctly low-key: the dancers wore rehearsal sweats and kept their eyes down as if marking the steps. These two then ceded the center stage to the Flex dance pioneer Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray and the D.R.E.A.M. Ring, dancers who show off their flexing mastery in battle-style competitions. Miracles of muscular isolation, the dancers performed their solos, and then Gray put down the hype mic to teach the crowd to flex. This was an “interplay of gatherings,” after all.

I visited “A Prelude” at different times, once on a 93-degree roaster, once on a beautiful spring afternoon, once in the evening in the rain. It was best in the rain. Something about the way the sound of the rain broke up my thoughts meshed perfectly with the work itself, which was often dreamy rather than particularly taxing or provocative. In the rain, the experience felt private and custom-built. When DJ Total Freedom set up inside that dark, now-intimate space that night, his choices vibrated over us like thunder. For his set, he had Josh Johnson return—now in a perfect blue-check suit—to dance his way in out of the rain, as members of the Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir sang, reading the lyrics off their phones. This was casual and happenstance and virtuosic at the same time. It was a lovely use of people, place, and weather.

There were other places where the distance between theory and presentation yawned wide, though. Both the Shed and the “Prelude” take as their touchstone Cedric Price’s unbuilt, dream-construction the Fun Palace (1961), a structure that would have involved moving sections. Von Hantelmann’s essay mentions it as a model for a radically interconnected space. Translating that inspiration into something performable, rather than a mere seed for venue design, led to some rather awkward choices. On one hot day, architects stood around, looking quite miserable in the sun, holding trays of Price’s drawings. You could ask them anything you liked. “Ah, so this is a blueprint?” “Yes indeed.” “Mmm.” They seemed both wildly overqualified and a bit at sea. The curators may have wanted to elide the line between durational performance and non-durational museum display, but that divergence happened over five centuries for a reason.

And what about the “ritual space” of the twenty-first century? Thinkers like von Hantelmann want to question the hierarchies in performance (I dance, you watch) or in presentation (I pay, you dance). And these are good things to question! There are crucial inversions that need to be made: the wealth of the patron and the poverty of the artist, to start somewhere.

But the “Prelude” did its job rather too well. It previewed the issues that will pursue the Shed. It modeled the Shed project—in which disciplines intermingle and the “many address the many” and recitals become concerts become parties—and did so without spending $500 million. Why do we need the Shed when we have Adeyemi’s hut? What does the Shed’s sliding roof get you that the sliding wooden panels don’t? The answer: It gets you bang for your half billion bucks. The Shed wants to be grand. The Shed wants awe. The Shed wants to look like a spaceport. Even in von Hantelmann’s taxonomy of ritual spaces, we have raced backward rather than forward—not to the theater, not to the museum, but all the way back to the reverence-inducing, hugely capitalized cathedral. A thousand essays on inclusivity won’t change that. They won’t erase the Shed’s position in a development scheme that benefits the wealthy. Everybody’s hero Cedric Price, long ago in the ’90s, himself submitted a plan for the Hudson Yards site called “A Lung for Midtown Manhattan.” His competition proposal recommended leaving the area empty except for sails that would direct breezes into our choking, fetid, filthy, beautiful city. He didn’t mention Sia. He didn’t mention condos. He didn’t mention Patek Philippe.

He lost.