Report from "Species Niches"

Species Niches by a collaborative team including Harrison Atelier asks questions about place, performance, and architecture through a new site-specific work.The Fields Sculpture Park and Architecture OMI, outside of Ghent, NY, opened their 2014 season on Saturday, June 14 with site-specific performances celebrating the unveiling of new contemporary sculpture and architectural projects. The architectural firm Harrison Atelier, whose husband and wife team Ariane Lourie Harrison and Seth Harrison visited us at the Mellon on June 4, opened their Species Niches as both an architectural project-in-progress as well as site-specific performance in collaboration with choreographer and dancer Silas Reiner, dancers Rashaun Mitchell and Cori Kresge, and composer Loren Dempster. All of the artists had collaborated previously.

Species Niches refers to two works: the architectural structure itself as well as the dance and musical performance in, around, and on it. As as-yet-complete structure Species Niches occupies an area near the bottom of a slope on the edge of a field, encroaching on a grove of tall trees. It is made of rectangular pieces of wood of varying lengths, joined together at different spans and angles by metal pegs. As a whole, the structure looks like a series of three honeycombed canopies, open to the air. It is roughly forty feet in length, fifteen feet in width, and eight feet at its highest point. Before the performance began, I was able to fully stand inside of the main canopy, where musicians had set up to play. 

Report from Species Niche

Report from Species Niche

On their website, Harrison Atelier describes the structure as “a theater that disperses into the woods,” and on this day the structure was ready for a show. The audience of about forty people sat and stood facing the structure. People spoke with their neighbors as children flew kites in the background. Someone brought their dog. At around 3:05, a woman standing behind the audience blew a conch that seemed to signal the beginning of the performance. More musicians joined in the conch playing, slowly making their way to the main canopy where they began to play their instruments: a violin, a clarinet, a cello and a percussion section composed of a xylophone made of stones, potted plants for bells as well as the structure itself, which was hit with a mallet. Throughout most of the piece, the atonal music built as each instrument slowly was introduced and the meter became more complex. The mood of the music was heightened by the sound of the wind moving through the large trees just beyond the structure.

The modern dance, choreographed by Silas Reiner of Merce Cunningham Dance Company and with Rashuan Mitchell and Cori Kresge took place in and around the structure. The dance can be divided roughly into three parts, each lasting ten to twelve minutes. In the first part, the three dancers appeared in street clothes in the field behind the audience. For the most part, they stayed in a triangular formation, sometimes coming closer together and at other times moving farther apart. At many points during the triangular formation they took turns moving, one at a time. Their movements were angular, and mostly slow, though occasionally they would accelerate in speed. At the end of this piece, they came in from the field, and Reiner slowly began to climb the structure, often placing his body supine upon it, as if he were resting. Mitchell returned in the last few moments that Reiner remained strewn across the structure to begin the second part. Mitchell again wore street clothes, but was soaking wet. He seemed exhausted, barely able to reach the audience, where he remained, in front of the structure. At one point, he threw himself violently upon the ground and proceeded to cover himself in dirt. Meanwhile, Kresge returned from the field behind the audience wearing a black suit and large black cape, which she used as a prop to guide her movements. In the final piece, each of the dancers wore beige leotards with plastic orange flaps attached. These flaps resembled flames and offered a stark visual contrast to the brown of the structure and the green of the forest. Many of the movements in this piece were manic, and a repeated action that Mitchell made seemed to suggest that he was trying to get something off of his body.   

Though the site of performance was non-traditional, the dancers borrowed one convention from the proscenium stage that is noteworthy in light of the Mellon discussions this year: they used a small hill, “stage”-left, as an off-stage or offset area (unseen, off- areas were a topic discussed in Elinor Fuchs’ lecture). Between each of the three movements, the dancers retreated over this hill to change costumes. Their withdrawal over this hill also seemed to indicate the ending of each part.

The performance lasted about forty minutes and ended with the musicians again returning to points around the audience, blowing their shell instruments. Though the dance and music aspects of the performance were compete, Species Niches as architecture is yet unfinished. Ariane Lourie Harrison said after the piece that the project was “surprising” in that it was not what they had planned. They had originally thought to use GPS equipment to map the dancers to begin a new phase of building on the structure. They did not proceed with this part of the project because they had run out of time in planning. As architecture, the project remains open, and in-process.


See also: Les Hunter