The barricades were not only pink, but pink too: terrifyingly lively, unabashedly cheerful. On a hot June evening, these barricades were placed at either end of a block in Long Island City, not just to stop traffic but to mark territory. For the next few hours this was an aunt-only zone. And while it can be difficult to describe exactly what Aunts is – it’s not an institution with a home base – it’s easy to say what it creates: a space for dance.
On June 6th, Aunts emerged from the pandemic with new organizers and Aunts Goes Public !, the first of three summer events presented as part of Open Culture NYC, in which dance artists take over a city block. In typical Aunts fashion, the performances bleed from one to the next, transforming a long street into a sensual landscape of movement and sound. Kirsten Michelle Schnittker and Tara Sheena, whizzing onto the sidewalk, echoed each other’s hops and swirls in a meditative, architectural arrangement that held their bodies tightly and delicately in space.
Chloë Engel, lithe in red pants, was everywhere – her body was a vortex of movement or still as she paused near a fence at the edge of a park. Jasmine Hearn, wrapped in sculptural cloth, was lost in her own world, seemingly conjuring ghosts on the sidewalk. Symara Johnson later waved an arm back and forth with gold tinsel on her ankles and wrists, sending out golden sparks. These and several other performances came in waves. Watching them was a bit like being pulled and pushed by the water yourself.
The next takeover of the aunts will take place on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. on South Oxford Street between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn. The third is on September 19th. (An additional performance by Aunts in October will be a collaboration with the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts and the Chocolate Factory Theater.) Each event that ends with a dance party includes about a dozen performers, plus a DJ and barricade artist. With Open Culture NYC attendees having to purchase their own barricades to block the street, aunts decided to turn that into art as well. Jonathan Allen created them for the first event; Malcolm-x will do the honor to Betts for Sunday.
What can you expect on Sunday? I like to think of aunts as a roaming adventure through power and space. Aside from multiple cast members – including Alexandra Albrecht, Rena Anakwe, Edie Nightcrawler, and Ambika Raina – it’s unpredictable, a venue for intersecting performances and multidisciplinary work. An aunt event is a place to try something out or to show a finished work. It is malleable and artist-led, open and non-judgmental.
“You get the chance to try things out with a live audience and see what works and what doesn’t,” says Laurie Berg, a long-time organizer of Aunts. “It’s like, ‘Did you just think about it when you came over on the subway?’ That’s great. That’s OK.”
Over the years, aunt events have taken place on beaches, in museums and in lofts. There is no time limit for a performance; Artists can repeat their pieces during a two and a half hour event or perform only once. For the audience, it’s a different way of seeing a performance: they can get up close to the dance or watch it from a distance. You decide where to look.
Founded in 2005 by Jmy James Kidd and Rebecca Brooks – although there were always many organizers – Aunts was taken over by Berg and Liliana Dirks-Goodman in 2009. When Dirks-Goodman left New York for Philadelphia, Berg decided it was time to open up aunts to a new generation of organizers. Together with Berg there are now six: Shana Crawford, Kadie Henderson, Jordan D. Lloyd, Larissa Velez-Jackson and Jessie Young.
“For me, the definition of curator is janitor as opposed to taste maker,” said Berg. “I’m a caretaker for aunts. I am a host and an organizer. But I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. “
“If it looks very different at the end than it did at the beginning,” she added, “that’s fine because it can’t stay the same.”
Velez-Jackson, a choreographer and interdisciplinary artist with a strong improvisational base, said much of her work began at Aunts events. Her first appearance on one was in September 2006. “Working with improvisational material in front of an audience was the place where the research would take place,” said Velez-Jackson. “When you’re live in front of people, it’s much more real – you get better.”
And for many months these experiences were rare. At a time when so many performance opportunities have been lost due to the pandemic, aunts as choreographers have a new relevance to work in public again. As Young put it, “It’s a mercury, shape-shifting form of organization that can invade and invade spaces and challenge growth from within.”
And that’s a model – caring yet free – that she believes in. What strikes Henderson about aunts is the way they look after their artists. (For one, they get paid, and even get paid if the event is canceled due to rain; they also have the option to perform at the September event if the July event is canceled.) A movement artist and vocal improviser with nonprofit experience, she was new to Aunts, but soon realized that “it would be a great opportunity for me to expand the mentoring that I normally offer,” she said, “with this extra layer I can choose the artists I supervise” . . “
Henderson’s concerns were that she didn’t “want to be at another dance event and be the only black girl there” or “another dance event where we all do the same PoMo moves,” she said, referring to postmodern dance . “With serious faces in these funky Dansko shoes and gauchos.”
“That’s not my job,” she said. “And I was a little nervous talking about it, but they were really cool. They said: ‘Kadie, we understand that.’ “
With six organizers recommending artists to perform at events, Aunts is reflecting something different in this era of contemporary dance: diverse and diverse artistic voices both behind the scenes and on stage. “Can you have a sound performer next to a movement performer next to someone who’s got into hip-hop?” Said Lloyd. “I was amazed by a wide range of voices, all doing different things, and how this could create an exciting experience.”
For Henderson, this collective energy creates artistic abundance. In Queens she even had to step behind the microphone and sing. “To be part of something that brought comfort and to be able to create a space in which I could find myself – of course I am moved to sing,” she said. “I want this reservoir of, damn it, we did it! And so many people didn’t. It’s my way of showing gratitude. “
Being with aunts also means the joy that it brings. Crawford, a dancer, also works at the Chocolate Factory Theater and was the production manager for the recent River to River Festival. She is busy. But aunts, to them, is worth it – and the name is everything. Aunts “has that loving, hugging support that helps you grow, that gives you experience, but it’s not like your mother,” she said. “And it’s not like your child. It is this family member who is here to let you do your thing. “
And right now, Aunts has brought that ethos to the streets, not just for artists but for audiences as well; in many ways they move as one. The street, Young said, is different from a park where she and many dancers spent hours choreographing and taking lessons during the pandemic. “There’s something about the friction, the structure, the concrete, the energy of a closed road,” she said. “It sucks the energy out even more: It’s like an artery that is locked in for art.”
Sunday at 5:30 pm on South Oxford Street, between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue, in Brooklyn; Check Instagram for weather updates.