At the Doors of U.S. Customs

As promised, here are a bunch of pics I took of yesterday’s first peek at the collaboration between Brooklyn-based choreographer Reggie Wilson, and Andreya Ouamba (originally from Congo but now residing in Senegal), entitled, intriguingly, “Accounting For Customs.” The work is part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s “Sitelines” project — comprised of dances that are created specifically for a certain site, outdoors, free and open to the public :)

This dance took place on the steps of the U.S. Customs House, which the dancemakers assured was significant. I honestly had to stop and think of what the Customs House represented. I have no background, or interest, in economics and actually almost got lost trying to find the place, since I think of this building as The Museum of the American Indian (which it now is; in 1973 Customs was moved to the WTC, don’t know where it is now…). Well, I guess the work that goes on in an official Customs Building is the setting of tariffs U.S. citizens have to pay on goods over a certain amount that they purchased abroad, right? So, a customs house deals with the price one pays for bringing something “foreign” into one’s own culture. A custom is also of course a cultural tradition.

Wilson has said (see Kourlas article linked to above) that one of his interests is to examine the intersection between “traditional” (by which I assume, in the African context, he means traditional African dance) and “contemporary” (by which I assume he means, in the American context, modern, hip hop, jazz, etc.). How do people react to contemporary dance containing traditional movement, he asks. Do they see the contemporary movement “evolving” the traditional, or “bastardizing” it. And how does innovation happen in this context — which force is credited with being “innovative?”

Thought-provoking questions no doubt. I’m not sure I can answer them, but I did really like what he and Ouamba came up with here. It was short but evocative and fun. The dancers began in a horizontal line on a low step, then two by two they paired off, greeted and hugged each other, then, holding hands, ran up the stairs, both together and apart, as they were separated by a central hand rail. Some dancers fell and lay down on a middle step, forcing others to find a way around them. Soon all dancers had fallen and lay down on a step, some atop each other. After a short silence, a loud bang emanated from the speakers (was it a car’s backfire, a gunshot?…), and the dancers then began rolling up the steps, eventually manoevering themselves to a crouched position, and crawled downstairs. All then stood up and danced, each his or her own way, up and down and all around those steps — at times fighting each other, at times being playful, at times embracing, helping each other up or down, carrying each other, stopping on a step to do a pose — a pretty arabesque evoking flight / freedom, a more urban, hip-hoppish stance — at times they would crash up against the side pillars, pushing and shoving against them, at times holding onto them for dear life while another tried to pry them off. All the while a woman dressed in traditional African costume sat off to the side, under a pillar, making crafts and from time to time looking over at the dancers — the children of the diaspora… her children. The music (not live, but played over loudspeakers that in my opinion were not amped up enough for outdoors) varied between what I assume was Senegalese music, poppy tunes with pulsating drums, folksy guitars playing a melody that sounded like a patriotic American song, and silence. At one point the woman on the side hummed a spiritual.

Anyway, great thing about outdoor performances is that you can take many pics!


I really liked these two guys. At one point they kind of hustled each other down the steps — rather playfully aggressive, each throwing the other down a few notches in a funky little turn. I think I’d be too scared to do that on narrow stairs. According to the articles, they only had two weeks of rehearsal!

In places the scene as a whole was even a little Rent-esque. Very urban. The photographer in the front with the long dreadlocks and the colorful outfit — he must work for some major publication around here because I see him practically everywhere!

Here’s the woman making her crafts and humming spirituals off to the right.


I loved this guy in the front … obviously — I kept taking pictures of him!


As I said, it was short and not entirely fleshed out, but their larger project together is to take place in 2009 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’ll definitely be excited to see what they come up with given more time!

If you’re in New York, to see this work, about 20 minutes in length, just go down to the Customs House, at Bowling Green station, at either 12:30 or 1:30 today and tomorrow.

9 Comments

  1. That was interesting. NY has so much to offer.

  2. thanks for the details tonya! i feel like i was there :)

  3. Thanks Jennifer — that’s my aim, so I’m glad you did!

  4. Oh Tonya, I adore site-specific dance events!
    I saw some beauts in L.A., but as far as I know, the best that we have here in Buenos Aires, would be tango in the street, and that’s not worth even stopping for a moment to look.
    Great photos. Thanks for posting them.

    Besitos!

  5. Hi, Tonya!

    Andreya e-mailed your site to me, as well as to friends in France and Senegal. The photos are fantastic! Thanks so much for posting them. I’m in L.A., so it’s nice to be able to experience the piece in a way.

    I just wanted to mention that Andreya is from Congo, not conga! Specifically, he is from the Republic of Congo, a.k.a. Congo-Brazzaville, but he has lived in Dakar in Senegal since the late 1990s.

    Thanks so much again!

  6. Thanks for commenting, Cherie and Anoosh! Anoosh, wow, I didn’t know he had seen my blog — that’s so cool! And so flattering that he emailed people :) And, thanks for finding my typo! I’ve been working too hard… :S Thanks again for visiting, you guys!

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