“I like large parties,” remarks a character in The Great Gatsby. “They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy." You could say that the dance company gloATL just threw a very large party, one that took place over the course of 15 days at multiple locations with the entire city of Atlanta on the guest list. “Liquid Culture; a physical installation series of 5 Utopia Stations" was a series of free dance performances given in Atlanta's public places on five separate evenings during a two week period in mid-July. With 20 dancers performing for a total of seven hours before an open audience, “Liquid Culture” was a sprawling, ambitious undertaking. But as with the parties Mr. Fitzgerald so clearly admired, this big work was perhaps most remarkable for its flashes of intimacy, near-privacy, that only such large affairs can provide.
The feeling was one of exploration, both solitary and shared.
The series began at the often-overlooked public sculpture “54 Columns” by Sol LeWitt on July 9 and ended at the busy intersection of 15th and Peachtree in front of the Woodruff Arts Center on July 23, with stops at the Lindbergh Center MARTA Station July 14 and the Little Five Points shopping district July 15. Dancers didn't so much 'make an entrance' at each location as slowly drift in and accumulate, and although the ensuing action occasionally had a central focal point, “Liquid Culture” was essentially a piece with no exact center. There were always compositions buzzing at the periphery, little vignettes blossoming in unusual pockets, and intricate movements unfolding in weird niches of the public spaces. A complete or definitive overview was impossible, and in fact, it was often most interesting to look—or even wander—away from what you perceived to be the center to discover the smaller dramas, often observed by just a small, intimate group of spectators or even witnessed by one person alone. At the best moments, the feeling was one of exploration, sometimes shared, often solitary, always intriguing.
The storefront windows of shops in Little Five Points were among the places dancers could wander.
The strongest of the performances was undoubtedly the one in Little Five Points. The promotional materials stated that the performance would take place “in the storefronts of select shops in Little Five Points,” which did not sound promising. It was, happily, an incomplete description: the shop windows were among the environments the dancers occupied. They posed, danced or gazed out from the window displays, but they also climbed out to wander sylphlike through the crowd, or turned back to watch other dancers still in the windows. They seemed to drift effortlessly across the boundaries we usually imagine to be inviolate: it's a short distance from sidewalk to window display, but few of us would ever think to cross it. The distance between spectator and performer is also likewise very small, but performers dreamily floated back and forth across these barriers as if new to the planet and unaware of its unspoken rules. The evening—the longest of the performances at three hours—unfolded unreally. Dreamlike, romantic, naughty, immersive, it was as if one of the surrealist paintings of Paul Delvaux had cracked open, spilling its contents into the world. It's rare to attend a three-hour performance and wish it was longer, but the feeling of freedom—to watch, to follow—was a difficult one to relinquish. When the performance was over and the dancers had left the streets, a buzzing Little Five Points gearing up for a busy summer Friday night seemed distinctly diminished and unexciting.
The evening at Lindbergh presented the group with the most challenges. The romance and freedom that were the currency of the other evenings proved harder for the group to evoke there. (This may have been partially due to the starting time. Most of the “Liquid Culture” performances took place during the evocative, cooling summer twilight hour. The Lindbergh performance started at 6 pm, which at this time of year is still tenaciously bright, hot, sticky, and glaring.) The performance started on a plaza outside the station and although the movements were strong and interesting, as when the group clustered together in a complexly interlocking huddle, it seemed a performance transposed from the stage. The absence of music was strongly felt: There were some nice ambient sounds when trains pulled in, but stations—even crowded, busy ones—actually have an overall atmosphere of quiet and stillness, static waiting, when the train's not there, and it's not a sound environment that suited the performance. Things picked up pace when the group moved along a side street and into the station, creating lots of weird, mysterious, comic arrangements in its interior. But overall the performance lacked the confident control of the other evenings. The invitation to enter a new, numinous world which seemed to slowly materialize on other evenings never quite coalesced there.
The weather on the final weekend had some visual flair, but overplayed its part.
The weather—a supernumerary most nights—became a scenery-chewing, up-staging, spotlight-stealing diva byotch the final weekend. With blue sky plainly visible over every part of the city except directly above the corner of 15th and Peachtree, tiny drops began falling as the first dancers arrived for the penultimate evening. The rain picked up pace alongside the show until it was falling in heavy, messy sheets, causing spectators to scatter in search of cover or to bravely bear the downpour. The audience had been told that the evening was to be a formal one, and many had dressed for the occasion: Surprisingly, the best-dressed among them seemed the least concerned about getting wet. Few if any audience members left although the rain lasted for about twenty minutes, finally making an extended decrescendo of an exit, as long and drawn-out as an opera heroine's consumptive death scene. The sun was shining again for the finale. It all had a certain visual flair, but overall I thought the weather overacted its part deplorably. The next night was much better.
It was interesting to look—or even wander—away from what you initially perceived as the central focal point.
The word “experimental” often gets tacked on to “dance” in a way that's probably irksome to dancers, but in the case of gloATL I think it applies. There's something experimental gong on: new methods are being tried, results are observed and contemplated, knowledge gained, aesthetics and philosophies are developing rather than being presented fully-formed, which is exciting because there's something unconsummated at the heart of the work, visible in each movement, as well. The company is headed in a good, original direction, and there's a sense of agency developing. Many of the dancers are becoming absolutely extraordinary. “Liquid Culture” was a major work, one that sort of snuck up bit by bit, but it was a game-changing one nonetheless. Romance, mystery, glamor, a sense of shared exploration are never easy things to evoke, but gloATL is developing the right muscles to pull and coax those feelings out of unexpected hiding places. At 15th and Peachtree, two dancers burst out of regimented formation and dashed diagonally through the intersection to meet and embrace at its center with traffic passing all around them: the boundary-crossing, optimistic, risky, transgressive, tender action could be seen as emblematic of the piece as a whole.
“Liquid Culture” was almost epic in its scale, with miniature narratives and memorable images woven throughout each piece and across the evenings. Absurd, surreal, comic, touching, abstract, erotic, tender, satiric: the work was not only large enough to hold all these modes, but seemed to want to expand to hold the spectator, as well. It offered no on-stage or off-stage area; no single, frontal, cohesive perspective of the action; no specified narrative. But following a dancer as she lurched and lunged into new space, or observing the rippling of muscles in a tensed back, seeing the mysterious, almost frightening interior concentration on a performer's face, noticing a brief gestural pose in a shop window behind a little sign which reads “Ask about our layaway plan,” or catching sight of a dancer contracting at the waist and then popping up to meet you eye to eye for a split second before bending at the waist again: It's hard to imagine these odd, exquisite, intimate moments taking place in any other context. In a darkened theater, there simply isn't enough privacy. The streets of Atlanta are so much more intimate.