Award-winning choreographer Mark Dendy has done magical things with large-scale site-specific works in the past. He used an abandoned tobacco-processing factory in North Carolina, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and transformed the entire Hearst Plaza outside of the Lincoln Center for an audience of 3000.
Although performed at Joe’s Pub on a 9 by 11-foot stage, NewYorknewyork @ Astor Place, Dendy’s new site-specific performance, is visually striking. Presented as part of DANCENOW 2015: Dancemopolitan Commissioned Artist Series, the production mines the rich history of the Public Theater building, once home to the original Astor Library.
The dance-theater piece begins with the destruction of several towers of books representing the thousands of volumes removed from the Astor Library in 1932. Dendy provides a flamboyant impersonation of William Backhouse Astor II, grandson of John Jacob Astor, at one time the richest man in the United States, who made his fortune in furs, the China trade and cotton transportation, part of the slave trade. The place was named for him soon after he died in 1848.
The narrative revolves around him and a cast of seven “time-traveling” characters, including a reporter, a male stripper, a freed slave, a Real Estate Agent, and an East Village ‘80s punk who take us on a journey through some of Astor Place’s darkest moments: the Astor Place Riot, and the first wave of AIDS epidemic. In the process, the work ponders gentrification, race relations, the role of tabloid news, the never-ending conflict between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, and the rise of the digital age.
A screen above the stage often flashes historical images and film footage. Records are played (including Lou Reed’s Walk on The Wild Side), there’s a Taylor Swift interview, and a lot of great moments.
Joe’s Pub was a huge inspiration to many other artists before. Doug Elkins’ Fraulein Maria and Nicholas Leichter’s The Whiz premiered there as part of the Dancemopolitan series launched in 2003 and produced by Robin Staff.
In 2011 the space became DANCENOW’s home base. “It is a simply magical space to present dance — the intimacy and the limitations really challenge the artists and we have made more than a dozen wonderful works there in the last decade,” said Staff.
This year for its 20th edition, the organizers wanted to commission a work that was specific to the pub and reflected the festival’s tradition of presenting site-specific work all over NY. “Thus NewYorknewyork @ Astor Place by Mr. Dendy who is a masterful site-specific choreographer that we have been presenting since 1999,” added Staff.