BY ELIZABETH ZIMMER | Unless you are a fish residing in the Hudson River, your journey to The Shed, site and producer of the world-premiere commission Maze, will be a schlep. The huge, flexible black box theater sits a few yards from 11th Ave. The best way for Chelsea residents to get there is on the High Line, which spills pedestrians out via elevator or stairs, half a block east of the site.
When you go, carry nothing that doesn’t fit in your pockets—but do include your phone; you’re allowed to take non-flash photos and video with it, throughout the show. Do not expect to sit comfortably and be entertained. This “immersive dance-theater piece” by a Brooklyn-based collective of young, mostly African American performing artists, requires you to move into the vast open space with them, to surround and be surrounded by them as they journey, alone or in pairs or small groups, through what the press material calls “a labyrinth of light.”
The spanking-new facility has state-of-the-art technical capacity, surrounding Maze with Tobias Rylander’s rock concert-inspired pyramids, blades, crucifixes, and arcs of light. Reggie “Regg Roc” Gray and Kaneza Schaal co-direct the 90-minute piece, which does not offer you a seat until a third of the way through. If you really need a perch the ushers will provide one, but if you take it you’ll miss most of what’s happening, as eager spectators crowd around and mingle with the dancers.
And what dancers! With the exception of Regg Roc, who founded the troupe, now called The D.R.E.A.M. Ring (Dance Rules Everything Around Me) in 2011, they’re mostly thin, wiry, almost feral in their wildness. Accompanied live by four percussionists on taiko drums, congas, and other surfaces, as well as two vocalists, and attired in diverse Nike activewear and sneakers, the double-jointed performers practice flexn and related hip-hop modes, popping their shoulders in what begins as virtuoso display but gathers significance as the show goes on, and comes to represent the various burdens of poverty, incarceration, and just generally trying to stay alive while black. They glide across the floor, twirl their baseball caps, and shimmy like lizards, making art of their own bodies.
I kept catching images that evoked Kara Walker’s edgy silhouettes of fierce black youngsters, recently on view in art galleries just south of this spot. The 14 dancers (11 men, three women) mime flight, silence, gunfire, screaming. They stand as though handcuffed. They express, in rap and gospel-inflected music, the pain of trying to live and love under constant duress. By the end, the event takes on the tone of a revival meeting.
Half an hour in, the performers usher us to stadium seating along the eastern wall, allowing the designers and musicians to help them shape the vignettes to come. Burly guys slide huge spotlights along tracks on each side of the space. Fans of hip-hop and rap should be in hog heaven at this show, which takes street dance forms and theatricalizes them.
Toward the end, after the artists take their bows, they invite members of the audience to join them in the ring and dance—and a surprising number do. “We got a battle going,” yells one dancer gleefully. The group of dancers has found, in this Jamaican-inflected dance form, salvation from the life of the streets that inspired it.
If only more contemporary art could matter so much.
Maze plays through Aug. 17 at the Griffin Theater at The Shed (545 W. 30th St. btw. 11th & 12th Aves.). Wed-Fri. at 7:30pm, Sat. at 7pm & 9:30pm, Sun. at 2pm. Tickets ($30 for Sat. 9:30pm performances, $40 otherwise) can be purchased at theshed.org or by calling 646-455-3494.
An older facet of African American dance and music culture unfurls a few blocks north, as a two-part series honoring jazz great Edward Kennedy” Ellington gets underway at Birdland Jazz Club. The first show, Ellington on Broadway, features songs from hit musicals, performed by vocalists Marion Cowings, Ty Stephens, and Andrea Wright, with appearances by tap dancers AC Lincoln and Karen Callaway Williams. The next program is called Sacred Sunday, the Gospel According to Ellington. The series is presented by the Duke Ellington Center for the Arts (founded by Duke’s granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington!) and the American Tap Dance Foundation. At both shows, Frank Owens conducts the Duke Ellington Center Big Band.
Ellington on Broadway is presented Sun., Aug. 4. Sacred Sunday is presented Sun., Sept. 1, at Birdland Jazz Club (315 W. 44th St. btw. 8th & 9th Aves.). Both shows are at 5:30pm. Doors open at 4:30pm. Tickets ($30-60) can be purchased at birdlandjazz.com or by calling 212-581-3080. There is a $10 food or drink minimum.
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