There was no escaping the buzz last week around the Nick Cave performance, Up Right, at Ponce City Market. Organizer Flux Projects spent over $125,000, according to executive director Anne Archer Dennington, to present the highly regarded artist’s production in Atlanta, which sees too few projects of this caliber.
There were six public performances over three days, April 24-26, plus a VIP preview party on April 23. The public events were free of charge but required an advance reservation; the 750 slots for each presentation filled up quickly, so it was a surprise to find a relatively thin crowd at the first performance. According to Dennington, that performance had just 400 attendees (including people who took a gamble and showed up without a reservation) while the final one had 816, with an overall total of 3,728, just shy of the anticipated 4,500. After the first day’s underwhelming attendance, Flux released more tickets to offset the no-shows who had made reservations. Such are the perils of free yet ticketed events.
As for the performance itself, it has been variously described as transformative, exhilarating, and boring. The energetic first half, a collaboration with local choreographer T. Lang, featured live drumming and costumed performers dancing throughout the space and among the roving audience, all led by a lanky and limber drum major (dancer Rikki McKinney), who almost stole the show.
The second half was somber and slow-moving, with elegiac piano accompaniment. Nine black male “initiates” were ceremoniously dressed by nine “practitioners” who slowly assembled Cave’s SoundSuits on armatures worn by each man, transforming them into otherworldly creatures. The men then put on something of a slow-motion fashion show, drifting about the stage for a while before exiting, one by one, rather anticlimactically. The performance was intended to reference the violent deaths of black men at the hands of police, yet that important piece of information wasn’t immediately available or easily discernible. While some audience members were rapt with attention and visibly moved, others began to fidget and trickle out, fading away, just as the performers did. —Stephanie Cash
We asked a number of attendees what they thought of Up Right. Let us know your thoughts, too, by commenting at the bottom of the page!
I thought that the experience was phenomenal!!! I especially enjoyed the construction of the mannequins, as informative and fascinating. I wished that the parade/dance performance had been on a stage so that all could enjoy the spectacle. BRAVO FLUX!!!!!
—Camille Russell Love, executive director of the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs
I actually loved the idea of the part on stage, but did think it was little too slow and long. It was certainly an art piece with great presence and thought and beauty. The calmness of the stage part with the exuberance of the dancing was a delightful contrast. It wasn’t what I expected, but I was certainly enchanted.
—Lucinda Bunnen, artist
Up Right Atlanta was an exhilarating and triumphant experience. It was a jolt of texture, a prism of color, and a glimpse inside of the music box. Nick Cave masterfully wove together the collaborative effort, and I appreciated that it was structured in a way that showcased many of Atlanta’s talented performers. Drum major/field commander Rikki McKinney rightfully took the spotlight at many moments. It was a treat to witness the layering and constructing of the SoundSuits.
—Aubrey Longley-Cook, artist
I thought the performance was really beautiful. The first half was so joyous and colorful; it was amazing how the performers were not just dancing in front of us but with us. The dancers actually reached out to touch us and pull us in, making eye contact through the mask. It really seemed like they were looking at us watching them, and I felt that this interactive gesture was playful but at the same time it created a real positive confrontation between spectator and spectacle. I was aware of my joy but still wondered if I should trust the feeling. The second half was much quieter and more contemplative while we watched a ceremonial dressing of the performers. The act of witnessing the dressing while still feeling the energy from the first half really amplified the physical and psychological weight of that adornment. The whole experience was very powerful, it will stay with me and my family for a long time.
—Sarah Emerson, artist
1. The best part of the show was seeing the inside of Ponce City Market.
2. The first half of the show with the drum line, dancing, and audience interaction was awesome! Too bad Nick Cave let the energy crash with such a languorous second half.
3. During the second half of the show, when they were dressing the dancers, I kept on thinking, “When are they going to dance?” I was very disappointed that, after watching performers slow walk for 30 minutes, there was no more dancing. Lame.
4. This show reminded me of Mardi Gras parades I went to growing up on the Gulf Coast. I loved the Afro-Carribbean stylings of this show—from the music and costuming to the wild dancing!
— Matthew Terrell, artist and writer
If my Instagram feed is any indication, all of the art-minded Atlantans, and a large swath of “your average citizen(s)” were swept away by Nick Cave’s invigorating and thoughtful performance at PCM. I haven’t witnessed such buzz surrounding an Atlanta art happening during my five years in town (other than perhaps some of the first Flux Nights, but even then the buzz usually died down shortly after Flux Night concluded). The experience was incredibly approachable and rich! During the first act, I was pleasantly overwhelmed by all of the activity and the ever-shifting center of attention. People were constantly herding themselves towards the action, only for the drum major to leap back down the human hallway, causing everyone to amble back. It takes a lot to get someone to move from their art-watching spot, and the fact that the crowd was constantly in motion is a testament to the success of the performance.
The second act felt especially poignant in the current political and racial crisis plaguing America. It offered an alternative view of “the black man” as a quiet, regal figure, being adorned with spirited swaths of color and texture, not as a threatening and aggressive “thug” that is poised to run down a cop lest the cop use deadly force first. The performance coincided with, or very narrowly preceded, the murder of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and follows the countless other murders of unarmed black men by the police across the nation. The men on stage were nothing to fear, in their normal clothes, as they undressed, or as they were reinvented by the SoundSuits, and yet those same men are all at the same incredibly elevated level of risk when it comes to being the victim of violence at the hands of the police. I also found it interesting that the performers on stage were not so much their own agents, rather, they were at the will of the lab coats solemnly drifting about stage. I do not if I read the lab coats as a more nefarious mediation or as neutral silent aides.
—Jordan Stubbs, artist and cofounder of the Low Museum
Kudos to Flux Projects for bringing Nick Cave’s work to Atlanta! His practice reflects all of what the Atlanta cultural community has to offer—fine art, fashion and music. The piece was fantastic in the new PCM, and the added layer of including local performers and the Spelman dance department brought considerable depth to the already complex piece. I also applaud Nick for being an artist who continues to experiment. The somber and introspective nature of the second half of the performance was a vulnerable side of the artist one does not typically see. And the first half had all of the trademark vibrancy for which he is so well known. What a boon for Atlanta to get to experience both!
—Melissa Messina, independent curator and Up Right volunteer
Volunteering for Flux Projects gave me two significantly different views of Up Right: Atlanta. For my first experience of the performance, everything was new (except that I grew up amid Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama, and in New Orleans, so … not novel). And eye-poppingly colorful. I found the percussive first half moving in the sense that I could not resist movement, dancing, reeling with the rhythms of the multiple drummers.
I found the solo keyboard accompaniment of the second half somnolent in comparison—but only the first time. Knowing what to expect during the work’s second Sunday performance (and final for Atlanta), and having a view of the proceedings from above, I watched the arduously attired dancers recede, one by one, into the distant reaches of Ponce City Market. By the end, with near-funereal music hanging in the air around me, I felt as if I was watching the last Carnival float (along with every iota of its cultural freight) ever vanish beyond memory, beyond knowing—and I was moved in an entirely other way.
—Ed Hall, writer and Up Right volunteer
Nick Cave is one of my favorite artists! I love his visual and performing art. His SoundSuits were my first introduction to him as an artist. I’ve been mesmerized every since. I’ve always wanted to meet him and was happy I had the opportunity here to do so. I loved the space and the energy of the performance. It was quite captivating. The work that was placed into each piece was amazing!
—Wyatt Phillips, administrative Assistant, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art