These days tracking the “downtown” arts scene means keeping up with Manhattan artists who are colonizing formerly obscure pockets of Brooklyn. You climb up from the L or F, get your bearings, then pitch off in some direction guaranteed to land you in a desolate industrial zone. As a woman often traveling alone at night, I’m sometimes uncomfortable in these situations. Mercifully, Yoshiko Chuma’s “Sundown”—performed by The School of Hard Knocks, Irish step dance expert Jean Butler, and seven trombonists including composer Christopher McIntyre—allowed viewers to arrive and depart any time during its 3-10 p.m. run. The marathon length is just one of several similarities to Kabuki theater.
Arriving near 6 p.m. with a plan to leave around 7:30, happily avoiding the afternoon heat, I still had enough daylight to enjoy the stroll past Carroll Gardens’ tidy brownstones on my way to Issue Project Room’s art space—a renovated industrial silo hard by the Gowanus Canal. When sated with my chosen slice of “Sundown,” I’d be free to leave with the summer evening still available. At IPR’s modest entrance, I was immediately given directions to a glass of sake— alcohol has become the one must-have amenity for “new audiences” at dance shows in recent years—but it was up to me to choose where to sit to watch events unfold.
Bypassing the refreshments, I quickly spotted Chuma and dancer Christopher Williams amid the small trees, weeds, and gravel of IPR’s enclosure. They were maneuvering one of the seven seven-foot cubes designed by Ralph Lee and deployed in the yard and inside the silo. As I joined a few viewers seated on plastic chairs, the muffled wail of trombones reverberated from within the silo’s performance space. Looking like a kid in pajamas and pigtails, the choreographer softly dipped, flapped, and backpedaled through the gravel and dust, moving her arms in a kind of accelerated tai chi. A gull glided toward the canal. Chuma lifted the cube high, lowered it, then silently motioned for us to rise. We must have looked uncertain because a crewmember quickly translated—“Inside. Air-conditioning.”
At first I resented having to leave the breeze, the rough greenery, the sky and its promise of sunset, and Chuma’s earnest calm, for the confines of the silo’s tiny, darkened upstairs room. The sound—accompanied by a trombonist, Butler raining a torrent of Irish footwork upon a hapless piece of wood–felt assaultive. Later on, I’d fall hard for her complex, fierce dancing as well as McIntyre’s handsome clan of black-clad trombonists. Next some of Chuma’s dancers threw open the shades, uncovered a rectangular hole containing stairs to the floor below that figured into a captivating promenade of exits and entrances.
Call it Kabuki stripped down for postmodern sensibilities. The little hidden staircase became a hana-michi (flower path or runway), as one by one, dancers repeatedly climbed its steps, then crossed the room as expressionless as mechanical targets on a track, or like Bunraku puppets. Williams especially—in his see-through women’s blouse and soft ballet slippers—evoked the cross-dressing tradition of Kabuki. The dancers’ bent-knee glides were pure Kabuki—with hands resting lightly on the tops of their thighs, eyes unfocused, the dancers kept their heads absolutely level and still. Although it might seem simple to achieve, this hana-michi movement is difficult to perfect and maintain. The cast received help for it from traditional Japanese dancer Mitsuru Tamazuka.
There were variations—a dancer twisting a hand in a uninflected wave, or executing a shallow bow from the upper back, or with forearms cocked up and stiff hands pointed downward, waggling his or her head like a dog. The path took each dancer out the front door and down to ground level so as to be able to climb back up through the trap door again. Sometimes one or more returned with prop in hand—a metronome, umbrella, or clock—or wearing fabric wrapped about the head.
In addition to Chuma and Williams, the excellent dancers included Ursula Eagly, Steven Reker, Saori Tsukuda, and Ryuji Yamaguchi. The trombonists were McIntyre, Joe Fiedler, Jacob Garchik, Curtis Hasselbring, Richard Marriott, Steve Swell, and Peter Zummo.
“Sundown” was a living collage of shifting locations and participants, deconstructed and reconstructed sets, and overlapping movement, sound, and video, executed over time as well as space. Some vague noodlings aside, my 90-minute slice contained enough agreeable bits and mesmerizing passages to make me seriously wonder what goodies I missed before 6 and after 7:30.