Early Friday evening at Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward Skatepark, it was hard to tell that anything out of the ordinary was about to happen. Regulars were coursing through the concrete curves and ramps of the skatepark. The soft clatter of their boards and the low hum of a nearby highway were the only sounds. It was an atmosphere of meditative study, serious work, and unspoken rules of rank and decorum. Monks might address each other with that sort of solemnity, watch each other with the same anxious scrutiny, speak in the same hushed tones.
By 8:30 it was a different story. A crowd of about 400 spectators descended on the small skatepark, and though the skaters continued just as they had before, the atmosphere became one of giddy, noisy anticipation. Acquaintances greeted each other enthusiastically. Blankets spread, chairs unfolded, beers cracked open. Cell phones and cameras were out and ready. The crowd gave a few desultory “ooh”s and “ah”s to some of the more daring moves, but it was clear that they had come to see something other than skateboarding.
Shortly thereafter, the most unusual visitors of all arrived. Dressed for a fashionable party in the early 60s—white gloves, floral dresses, petticoats, bobby socks, flip hairdos—they drifted into the park one by one from different directions wearing affable but inscrutably distant expressions, almost vibrating with a strange interior focus. A loudspeaker played advertising jingles from the early 1960s—for gum, for aspirin—John F. Kennedy spoke, and the strange visitors took positions in and around the bowls of the park.
This was the first night of dance company gloATL’s latest performance the search for the exceptional, which took place from May 11-13, 2012, at Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward Skatepark. The company, now finishing its third season, creates site-specific public performances in unusual places around the city: at a busy mall, at a combined sewer overflow facility, at a MARTA rail station, at a street corner in midtown. The new performance, which utilized dance, skateboarders, music, soundscape, and film in an hour-long performance at the skatepark, was one of the group’s most fascinating outings yet.
The most exciting element of the new piece was the simultaneity of dance and skateboarding. The dancers worked in the park for several weeks before the show, gradually integrating their own movement with that of the skaters’. Both groups had a similar sort of sedate but intense centering, but they each had outrageously different velocities, different trajectories, different capabilities. Curves and dips in the concrete that helped skaters gain speed were obstacles for dancers. The dancers remained perfectly still as skaters flashed by them, or they ran, oddly heavy and comically slow, as they traced the fading trail that a skater effortlessly carved out before them. They struggled up the walls or slid down on their bottoms as skaters sliced around with ease. The dancers were like time-travelers who had only half-arrived in this faster, darker, noisier, sexier present.
The presence of the audience seemed to awaken a trickle of provocative energy in the skaters, and they veered daringly closer to the dancers, their peers banging their boards against the pavement in applause for a particularly prodigious or treacherous move.
gloATL dancers activate an entire site, sometimes even exploring beyond its parameters. Completists often express a sense of frustration about the company’s shows because it’s inevitably impossible to see everything at a crowded site-specific performance. But the skatepark environment was especially well-suited. The bowls themselves were like blank canvases, eliminating lots of extraneous detail. Sightlines were clear, and it was always possible to have a view of several satisfying nodes of activity. If a particular transition was missed, it became the source of interest and excitement rather than frustration. The largest basin seemed empty, but a moment later there was a lone dancer in a bright red vintage bathing suit and white swim cap stranded at the bottom. Not knowing exactly how or when she got there made her presence and the image all the more intriguing.
The piece also involved film created by Micah Stansell. The original hope was to project the images into the bowls themselves, but resistance from city authorities towards turning off the lights in the park caused a last-minute change of plans. Instead, iPads showed the gorgeous, slow, silent images of divers, swimmers, flooding. Projection would have been nicer (the stands that held the screens seemed especially clunky): nonetheless, the screens became little portholes, perhaps into the individual dreams, fantasies, or anxieties of the time-travelers. The dancers appeared on the screens in old-fashioned outfits and bathing suits, diving, sinking, splashing, drowning, as their present bodies wandered around the odd, waterless, contemporary basins.
A field behind the skatepark was nicely utilized: a spotlight from a construction crane high above created a small, bright, room-sized square in the middle of the dark field, where a single dancer twisted and rolled in the grass. Dancers also congregated out there for little satirical takes on 60s dance crazes, like “The Swim,” partnering up, thrusting hips, strolling, twisting, and then giving a forced laugh before parting suddenly. It suggested the social-sexual repression of the era, its formality and rigidity, but also the way music and dance acted as crucial valves for the slow release of some of those tensions.
The performance referenced 1962, the year Atlanta began desegregating its public parks. The whole thing began to resonate especially powerfully after a related lecture by historian Kevin Kruse on Saturday morning at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Atlanta’s public spaces, he explained, especially its swimming pools, became the focus of racist resentment and anxieties during that time, leaving lasting, ugly traces on the city’s and the nation’s civic life. Segregationists sought to scare liberal whites away from newly desegregated pools with alarmist warnings about venereal disease in the water. Divisions emptied public spaces, hacked the city into parts, dashed hopes for a better public and cultural life, a legacy we’re still dealing with today. It wasn’t new information exactly, but somehow the details were drearier and uglier, the whole thing more present and cohesive, than we’d imagined. (That old scar on your arm? It’s actually an open wound).
Our interstates were once welcomed as a way to divide the city quickly and efficiently into black and white neighborhoods. For me that fact echoed more than a little on Sunday night. It seemed that the poured concrete slabs of the interstate that brought me to the final performance of gloATL’s show had the same blank, monolithic look of the Berlin Wall. Both structures went up at the same time and were built of the same stuff. (The Wall’s most famous, most photographed face—graffitied and pock-marked—was actually a late development. Its real face was sleek and expressionless.) It’s a grim parallel, I suppose, but maybe a hopeful one? Artists paint a reviled wall and then it falls down?
It was touching anyway that at the final performance on Sunday night, gloATL performed a shortened version of the show. Heavy rain in the afternoon and early evening kept many of the skaters at home, and the dancers felt that the performance just wouldn’t be the same without them.
Disclosure: Possible Futures, the foundation that commissioned this performance, awarded significant grants to this publication in 2010 and 2012. The grants, however, were given unconditionally with the understanding that “meaningful arts criticism is vital in that it challenges artists to do their best work.”