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A Vote For The Uptown and Art in Public Spaces

Updated: Nov 22, 2018

When I walked into the performance space at 5:30pm last Thursday evening, I noticed in quick succession: 1) all the walls were black (like a black box!), 2) the floors were sticky, which produced a satisfying suction-like sound with each of my steps, and 3) the room was much smaller than I remembered.

I had only been to the Uptown twice before - once in its regular capacity as a nightclub, and once to 8x8x8 the previous year - so I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t noticed the black walls or sticky floors before. Afterall, one time was after midnight (etc.), and both times there had been plenty of other things to pay attention to. But the vast difference between my memory of the size of the space and the (generous) hall-like room I now found myself standing in shocked me.

My sister, with whom I’d be performing a duet, turned to me. “It’s small,” she said. We’re often on the same page.

We ran through tech and figured out how to reorient a few of our longer passes to take advantage of the room’s narrow length. The sticky floor continued to offer sonic amusement (in spite of the meticulous mopping efforts on part of the production team), making a flatulent growling sound now with each turn of my bare feet. By the end, we were feeling good. “It’s small,” Aviva said, “but I think it will work.”

Two and a half hours later, we stood ready backstage. The energy filtering in from the performance space felt positively jubilant, like golden bubbles in a flute of champagne. As Aviva and I entered the room, I felt I was being plugged into a live outlet. “I am a live wire,” I thought. And then I stopped thinking words.

I didn’t notice the black walls, or the sticky floors (which at this point may no longer have been sticky - lots of people, humid energy). I saw only people, smiling faces, open hearts. The room felt expanded like a lung, like an open palm with enough space to hold us all. The stage space itself was even smaller than it had been in tech, edges overflowing with the limbs and jackets of people sitting in a circle on the floor. But walking into the center of the stage felt like circling to the middle of a vast amphitheater lined with people. I was amazed the room could hold us all. As we paused to take our first breath, the room paused with us. And then we began.

"Side By Side" by Molly & Aviva Rose-Williams. PC: Kaveri Seth

Performing in this show was one of the most thrilling performance experiences of my life. I have rarely had so much fun dancing. The energy of the audience felt almost ostentatious in its unfettered celebration. At once intimate, generous, and undeniably present.

And this I believe: while the artistry of every act was inspiring (shout-out to the incredible Randee Paufve for bringing together such a wonderful, eclectic mix of artists, and to the artists for sharing their work!), the production seamless (thanks to the supremely competent Jessi Barber), the hosting pitch perfect (by the indomitable Nina Haft), and everyone in the audience top notch (thanks y’all!), so much of the exuberance of 8x8x8, year after year, comes down to the absolutely quirky character of this unique venue and the promise that it holds for all those over 21 - that they are welcome. It felt like public space in a way that I have rarely experienced in performance contexts. Beyond the intimacy of house shows, the novel re-location and imagination of outdoor site specific work, the indiscriminate accessibility of large, well-known venues. Modern dance in a night club created a dream that we all could share and celebrate. We were there to gather, not simply to share, observe and perform. It was like a rave for art.

After the show, people stuck around to hang out. While a good third of the audience stayed in the performance space to shake, shout, and dance their hearts out with Eric Kupers and Bandelion Dance Theater, most of the rest of us flooded the bar in the space adjacent. People were boisterous and chatty, sharing their thoughts and impressions with an unselfconscious bravery that I have rarely experienced after artistic events. Yes, alcohol may loosen tongues. But more, the unspoken possibility of the novel context allowed me to hear thoughts and feedback from people that felt intimate, special, immediate and real.

Perhaps most special, a friend of mine with a self-professed aversion to most modern dance, came to see me perform for the first time in our two-year friendship. “Oh my god!” she said, after greeting me with an enormous grin and a hug, “This wasn’t at ALL what I thought modern dance was like. It was so great! It was so...FUN!” She fluttered her hands. “Wow. Khaled and I are even talking about making a dance now!” She motioned to her partner next to her, who confirmed with a sheepish grin. “It was just so inspiring,” he said. “I mean, maybe we should go to more dance shows.” I shrugged noncommittally. I’d love to believe they’d find other shows so inspiring, but for now, I have a hard time imagining any old show matching modern dance in a bar.

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