At the River to River Festival, the Art of Slowing Down

One of the beauties of the River to River Festival is that anyone can witness it, or most of it, even without intending to. Many of the performances, presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council free of charge, take place in outdoor public spaces — open to whoever might happen to be there.

Three works in this year’s lineup — by Pam Tanowitz, NIC Kay and Jennifer Monson — embraced this relationship to the public, keeping barriers to entry low. A fourth, by Sarah Michelson, in an alternate, idiosyncratic approach, took place on the 12th floor of an office building (a location disclosed only with R.S.V.P.) for a limited audience. Transpiring high above the city, past a security desk that required photo I.D., it was far from easily discoverable, more like a well-kept secret.

Ms. Tanowitz created “Time is forever dividing itself toward innumerable futures” for Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City, catching the attention of anyone out for a stroll there the evening of June 19. Narrowly escaping a second rain cancellation, the piece seemed only enhanced by the foggy weather, which brought out the maritime motifs in Ted Hearne’s score for voice, guitar and horns, performed live. And the slippery conditions didn’t stop the 11 dancers from sprinting and galloping across the park’s vast lawn.

Blending nature and artifice, the work unfolded on and around several low platforms covered in fake grass. A core ensemble, in pink jazz sneakers, flocked among them, dispersing and reuniting. Audience members could stand anywhere, and the cast rose to this spatial challenge, surging through crowds without hesitation, then locking back into Ms. Tanowitz’s ornate phrases. It was refreshing to see Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley, both principal dancers with New York City Ballet letting go of precision at times, choosing playfulness. (The project was, in part, Ms. Mearns’s idea.)

The next day, a quieter performance awaited at Albert Capsouto Park in TriBeCa, where the nearly two-hour journey of“pushit!!” — by NIC Kay, who uses gender-neutral pronouns — began. Neck bedecked with a bundle of balloons, Kay opened in stillness that gave way to incremental motion, animated by a subtle internal pulse: a toe creeping along the ground, a wrist flexing. The movement continued to bloom, the pulse growing more pronounced.

Kay describes the work, part of the series “Getting Well Soon” as “a meditation on emotional labor and the impossibility of the ‘stage’ as a place of freedom for the Black performer.” Exiting the park and leading us silently through the city as the sun went down — with one indoor stop at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center, a gallery at the Borough of Manhattan Community College — Kay carved out space to dance, rest or just keep walking forward, with calm, magnetic purpose.

We were heading toward the African Burial Ground National Monument on Duane Street, and as we approached, now in darkness, a song began to play; the pulse that had started so many blocks ago could now be clearly heard. It was as if, at last, we could hear the music running through Kay’s head. Removing the balloons, Kay attached them to a speaker and walked away. It felt like a profound moment of release, unburdening, through connection with the past.

With its measured pace, “pushit!!” also aligned with the theme of this year’s festival: slowing down to reflect. Jennifer Monson, too, asked her audience to move slowly, which wasn’t hard to do at 5:15 a.m., the start time on Sunday for “ditch.” Arriving at Pier 35 on the Lower East Side, we were handed a “score for the audience,” which invited us to notice sources of light, sound and pressure.

The pier was surprisingly active for dawn, populated by men playing dice and women doing aerobics. As the city awakened — traffic picking up on Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, the buildings to the south turning pink in the rising sun — so did Ms. Monson and her three fellow dancers. Wearing what looked like sculptural tarps, they seemed to move in response to the wind, feeling for its shifts of direction.

At one point, Ms. Monson melted into a row of plants and onto the pavement, turning heads among the dice players. One passer-by, delighted by the work, approached her at the end and asked where he could follow her on Instagram. There were no such exchanges with strangers in Ms. Michelson’s “June 2019 /\,” a profanity-filled solo for the artist that calls back to her Manchester, England, roots. Ms. Michelson has often embedded images of herself and her collaborators in her work, and for this latest phase of self-mythologizing (and self-deprecation), she covered the walls of a beige-carpeted office space in cartoon renderings of naked women: a far cry from the formal oil portraits in her 2011 “Devotion,” or the cool neon outline of her face in “Devotion Study #1 — The American Dancer.”

In pink satin pants, white heels and no shirt, she leaned into a kind of unhinged rock star persona, making noise with electronic drum pads, roll-up keyboards and, chiefly, her own voice. “I’m a dancer! Don’t say I’m not!” she shouted, and fired insults at herself. In her outrageous, bizarre and sometimes very funny way, Ms. Michelson seemed to be asking a sensible midcareer question: What does it mean to grow older as someone who has chosen to dedicate her life to dance?

Ms. Michelson is also known for being protective of her work and its documentation. On the way out of the performance, a room labeled “Dancer as Archive-ing” beckoned. The glass door was covered, and only dancers were allowed inside.

River to River Festival

Through June 29 at various locations in Lower Manhattan;

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