Published Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine Fall 2010

The gods of Wall Street beamed from halcyon skies during the last performance of Paul-André Fortier’s mesmerizing Solo: 30X30.  It was another matter on the ground, as it took more than the charms of an agile Canadian to reach those overachievers who plowed past Fortier’s temporary domain at One New York Plaza.  Heads down, no doubt preoccupied with dreams of ticker tapes and dividends, these weekend warriors were easy to spot, and a part of me pitied their inability to let this site-specific performance penetrate their seriousness.

No matter—others were more than willing to take in this show, presented by the Joyce Theater and Arts Brookfield Properties as part of the Lower Manhattan’s River to River Festival.  Still, the sparse crowd made me regret not catching Fortier perform on a weekday, if only to see what, if any, effect Fortier’s presence had on the workday crowds.  I wondered if they were similarly indifferent, or if the novelty of movement in an unlikely setting might actually slow them down.  Would it alter their notions about performance—dance can be just as viable in a seemingly impromptu setting as it is on a traditional stage, or prove disposable, like the fleeting strains of a song that wafts from a passing automobile?

What about the impact on the artist?  Fortier has said that performing 30X30 is a lesson in focus, easy to understand with the distractions of car traffic (which was bountiful, and loud) and the waves of folks—workers and tourists—who flow around, in and out of One New York Plaza (a site that, by the way, hosts other works of dance throughout the summer).  Since there is no theater to contain the work, the usual tools used to control focus (lighting, sound design, music) are absent.  The paradoxical challenge, then, is to make oneself stand out, create a stir in the atmosphere, yet like the air, be at one with the surrounding life.

First performed in 2006, the dance’s title contains its mandate: it’s a 30 minute piece that occurs every noon hour outside One New York Plaza’s building for 30 consecutive days.  For that space of time people had ample opportunities to experience a re-arrangement of expectation.  I’m sure reactions were varied, but on a YouTube video (Google 30X30 River to River) I was struck by one young woman’s comment that cited Mr. Fortier’s age (she called him an old guy) as the most unusual aspect of the performance.  I’d like to think that anyone who’s discovered carving out space in the midst of a crowd deserves at least a glance.  But Mr. Fortier is striking not because he’s old, but because he’s focused on his task: to make something interesting using only his agile body, a choreographic idea and twinkling eyes that are as full of fire as his limbs, their laser focus engaging the crowd before bathing them in rays of benevolence.

30X30 takes place within the parameters of a taped square.   Fortier’s arsenal is formidable and compelling, from the repose of slow walks where he appears to ponder every step, to a sequence where he simply explores the weight of his head.  Maybe it’s the French thing, but it’s hard not to think of Marcel Marceau (or the wire walker Philippe Petit) when he satirizes the old mime trick of defining a wall with his hands, pretends to lose his balance, or does a perfect imitation of a bobble-headed toy.  Perhaps the best vantage for the work would be from above, where you’d be better able to appreciate the ways in which Fortier marks the diagonals (imagine a giant X) within the space.  From the ground, focus rests on the variety found in simple modulating shapes that often resemble the asanas found in yoga.  This nod to an ancient practice further couches the piece as a kind of offering—to the space (no more recessions, please) and his audience, an act of obeisance that sends a Karmic shiver when you learn that Fortier has performed this piece all over the world.

Maybe that is 30X30’s true aim.  Fortier manages an activation of energy between artist and onlooker that feels like a bestowed blessing.  Towards the end of the performance, I found myself thinking of Joni Mitchell’s paean to artistic selflessness, “For Free.”  What an ironic counter-response (the piece has no musical accompaniment) as you consider a work danced in the shadows of all those commercial cathedrals: her tale of an encounter with a poor street musician who “was playing real good for free,” dovetails nicely with the idea of the River to River Festival’s free, summer-long presentations of dance, music, art and film, whose venues range from building plazas to other landmarks like the South Street Seaport and Governor’s Island.  Long before the arts became commodified, folks who had the gift simply gave it away; wander up to Washington Square Park and you’ll see some who still do (ignore the presence of a hat or open guitar case ready to accept your loose change).  That someone found a way to make it happen on this grand scale is a miracle.  Fortier, and the legions of artists who’ve gathered for what has already become one of the Big Apple’s treasured events, play real good.  For free.

Paul André Fortier: Solo 30X30 (July 16-August 14)

Presented by the Joyce Theater and Arts Brookfield as part of the River To River Festival, New York City, Summer 2010.

Choreographer and dancer: Paul-André Fortier.

Rehearsal mistress and Choreographer’s assistant: Ginelle Chagnon.

Costume designer: Denis Lavoie.

Co-producers: Canada Dance Festival, Ottawa, Canada; Place des Arts, Montreal, Canada.