If a group of artists can bring a sense of beauty and mystery to a combined sewer overflow facility, it’s fair to say that something extraordinary is happening. On November 19 and 20, 2011, at 2PM each day, the Atlanta-based dance company gloATL performed their new work Float on the Atlanta BeltLine, a weedy, gravelly, disused railway line that runs through several downtown neighborhoods. The piece was one of a series of artworks sponsored by the city to promote the BeltLine rehabilitation project and to encourage Atlanta residents to explore the neglected urban space.
gloATL’s performances don’t seem to “begin” so much as accumulate. Float started with a single dancer appearing at the northeast end of Piedmont Park. In a red top and hood, she marched in a playful childlike gait along the old former railroad tracks that run parallel to the park, trailing a red balloon that was tied at the back of her neck. She was followed by a supernumerary carrying a speaker which played natural sounds like waves, flowing water, and bird calls.
A growing crowd of spectators followed her, and as she made her way down the tracks, she was joined by other dancers who emerged from the woods: they were pulled along in a sort of loose, migratory procession, some costumed similarly in red, another distinct group in drab brown street clothes.
I’ve been to Piedmont Park a million times, but the performance site—a huge, horrid, concrete gully created to manage rain and sewer overflow—has barely ever registered to me as a “place” before. It’s something you hurry past during walks to and from more pleasant parts of the park, a peripheral “noplace” tucked away in a neglected in-between area.
When an artist finds an object, say an unusual photograph in a thrift shop, and recontextualizes it as art, we call it “found art.” gloATL found a monument. The dancers inventively utilized every odd nook and cranny of the weird space, its metal grates, graded walls, its huge swinging chain-link gates hinged at the top. Rain, sewers, and drinking water are complex and worrisome urban issues in Atlanta. To reclaim and utilize such a space for creation is pretty outrageous and daring. It carries comic bite and tragic heft.
Movement was often marked by drastic changes of balance and direction, odd isolations, sudden jerks into new positions. Dancers drifted around in buoyant surges, becoming unpredictably still, or slowly exploring some individual task with intense concentration. A surreal dreamlike narrative—or narratives—were suggested, but never specified.
In a gloATL performance, perspective is everything. Ideas and images are set in motion by the performers, but they emerge, ebb, intersect, recede, and dissipate according to the viewer’s perception: the work therefore often seems to have its real completion in the audience’s experience.
A performer staring into a broken TV next to a disturbingly pretty pool of what we’ll just call “water” seemed a particularly sad image to me: she stood and opened her mouth, and a tiny red balloon dropped out. Later, she picked up a basket among the weeds and branches and began handing out balloons to the audience members with her head bowed, her body trembling with shyness and humility. The whole area that gloATL uses for performance is so active, it’s often difficult to take in everything; for completists like myself, that can be frustrating. At one point, the dancers in street clothes left the site and took a high circular path through the woods (joggers got a surprise), but somehow I missed this entire interesting little sub-plot.
It’s difficult to pinpoint an “ending” to a gloATL performance. The dancers peel away slowly, ebbing away bit by bit. You may turn to leave, only to discover performers somewhere else, still inside the work. Some stay in it for quite some time. As things were winding down in Float, one of the dancers—the same who had initiated the performance by marching down the BeltLine—sat alone in the woods. Her movements became more recognizably human and quotidian. She seemed slightly astonished by her surroundings and by her rubbery headdress which she tore off in pieces. She shook her hair, looked around as if waking from a very odd dream, and released her balloon. It drifted into the high branches of a tree, and then she marched away. It made a satisfying end for me, but I suppose you could argue that the work is still going on: it sort of feels that way. I live close to the park, so I can check on the stuck balloon from time to time. I hate to miss anything, and I’m curious to see how Float really ends.
The work’s full title was Float: A Short Urban Fantasy. Was the fantasy about cleaning this toxic place? Perhaps so. Dancers in the facility occasionally gave members of the audience a long, haunted look, a mixture of sadness and pity: it was the look an alien visitor might give upon discovering that human beings shit where they drink. At the end of the famous film The Red Balloon (another short urban fantasy), all the balloons of Paris congregate to lift a little boy away from an unhappy situation. Maybe balloons could gather to fix this tragedy, too. That is a lovely little fantasy indeed.