Reflecting on New York: Performance

Let’s go Rangers” was the cry, echoing round the stadium. A sea of eighteen thousand blue and white decked fans cheered, jeered and yelled from every side. As the six players took the the ice, the intensity and urgency of the crowd rose, the tempo directly linked to the position of the puck on the ice. New York Rangers, the home team, had 99% of the support: whenever they got near the Penguin’s goal, the crowd surged to it’s feet, excitement building, rising to a crescendo when a shot was taken and followed by either a cheer that shook the roof or a deflated sigh as a save was made.
Time Square
Ice hockey was a revelation to me: a fast paced game combining athleticism, aggression and entertainment all alongside an upbeat soundtrack. The pitch and tempo of the game are reflected in the music, all played on the organ, often taking popular songs like ‘We will rock you‘ and segueing them into the familiar conventions of a rising series of major and minor chords to match the play.

When i was at school, a favoured summer activity was being picked to man the cricket scoreboard: elevated into a wooden hut, ten feet or so above the ground, one operated the large black and white number boards through a series of ropes and levers, displaying scores in a rickety and usually slightly inaccurate way. But not here: video graphics displayed on the giant, hanging central display move far beyond the simple scoreboard of my youth, including slo-mo replays, animations and stats in full and dynamic colour.

The rules, such as they are, largely eluded me: the intricacies of offside lost in the bewildering speed of play. Not that it detracted from my enjoyment: simply to be lost in the swirl of emotion is the pleasure in itself.

I love American sports for this: the willingness to make sport a matter of total entertainment, more akin to a music gig than the dour faced crowds rolling out to watch an English football match in the mud and rain, to cheer the victors and riot in defeat.

Fans, New YorkThere’s a strong element of performance about it all: from the way that the teams are introduced to the singing of the national anthem, presenting of the flag and the ceremonies that fill the gaps between play. Everyone has a uniform: the team sport this year’s colours, the referees and linesmen a sombre black and white affair, the fans a disparate collection of previous stripes, many autographed, or one of the free T shirts left on every chair for us novices to wear and be part of the action.

There are rituals in sport too: the white scarf or towel whirled in the air to the cries of “Let’s go Rangers“. Rituals now crystallised and set in routine: alongside every free T shirt, a free small branded towel to wave. I don’t know the origin of the ritual, but clearly today it’s been subsumed by routine and sponsorship, which is no bad thing, reinforcing the identify and celebrity of the game.

And it is about celebrity: as the Rangers failed to score time and again, as opportunities passed them by, the shouts around me turned to abuse against one of the players, apparently signed in a seven million dollar deal that season. Frustration about performance led to calls (and counter calls) to get back to his own club or earn his money. Counter that with celebrity earned from success: the faces of older heroes stare down from posters and screens everywhere, and the pre game anthem was sung by an old man, his playing days long gone, but whose presence caused the spectators to rise to their feet and cheer for past glories and reputation earned on the ice.

Get it right and your name will never be forgotten: get it wrong and you’re damned to inconsequence and iniquity. At least until the next match.

Madison Square Garden itself is an institution: a temple to sport in the heart of New York City. Iconic and much loved, ‘the Garden‘ is a symbol of scale and entertainment. Hosting something like three hundred events each year, it’s a beating heart of culture, a venue and a vision. And like all the best temples, it’s spaces are subdivided, starting with the outer and very public spaces, moving through a series of inner rings, shrines to commerce and catering, before you enter the inner sanctum itself. The choreography of sport is precise: the bars, the shops, the eateries, the seating plan, the pens for the teams, the goals, the scoreboards. Everything has it’s place and our journey between them is mapped out for both convenience and coherence. Performance is everything.

Head uptown for a very different type of performance: choreography in the most classical sense.

Lincoln Centre - New York

The Lincoln Centre hosts twenty nine separate performance areas, from a grand opera space to a jazz club. Arranged around a central plaza, it’s a community space framed by bars and restaurants, bustling by day, alive by night. I was there to watch the New York City Ballet perform four retrospective works by George Balanchine, often described as the father of American ballet.

Lincoln Centre from the sideThe David H Koch Theatre is one part of the Lincoln complex, the world’s first purpose built modern dance venue, a combination of spaces for rehearsal and performance. You walk in through a low ceilinged lobby, then up stairs to the promenade: an imposing five story galleried space where you are surrounded by posters of previous performances and stars. Balanchine was instrumental in the building of this venue, matching form to function and ensuring that performance and enjoyment were at the heart of everything.

Ballet is a specialised form of athleticism: dancers sculpting their bodies and honing their skills through a lifetime of rehearsal and practice. Much like professional sports players, their performance career may be all to short, but they often build secondary careers in supporting roles, like Balanchine (who became New York balletmaster for 35 years after a debilitating knee injury ended his performance career).

The performance of ballet differs from that of hockey in many ways, not least of which is that one is choreographed to deliver consistent narrative whilst the other is competitive to deliver an emergent one. But they’re not as different as you might think: both disciplines rely on a level of physical capability and both rely on teams (or troupes) and a rigid structure. One is rule based, the other formal choreography, but both equally constrained in service of a coherent experience.

Both have their uniforms, for both performers and audience and both have conventions around music and rehearsal. They are societal rituals and co-created performances in dedicated spaces with tribal overtones.

Ballet is an expressive language where the body substitutes for words and the expression is physical, three dimensional, much as music uses tone, tempo and rhythm to convey meaning. We admire not just the prowess of the individual dancer, but the coordination of the company. Some effects are delivered through coherence at scale, much as the overwhelming impact of the hockey left me unable to separate individual performance from overall movement. The individual is subsumed into the whole.

Interior of Lincoln Centre, New York

Walk out of the Lincoln Centre and back down the side of Central Park, my third experience of performance in New York was on Broadway, far from the classical spectrum. New York is arranged on the typical American grid pattern, making it both easy to navigate and predictable: Broadway cuts diagonally through this like a knife, a long scar running North West to South East.

Bullets Over Broadway is a classic show: song, dance, cheeky characters and great set design. These shows are the industrial heavyweights of the performance world, raking in vast amounts of money over often long lifetimes. Where ballet is about refinement and performance at the peak of fitness, Broadway is about reliability and a good solid evenings entertainment. Where sports are competitive and varied, Broadway is about consistency and convention. And it’s great.

Broadway, New YorkThere’s something magical about a stage: it’s immediate, physical, far more connected than a film or television can ever be. It’s always metaphysically a dusty space with greasepaint and faded curtains. The acting always slightly over the top, the smiles slightly fixed, the action necessarily constrained by space and time. When a car drove onto the stage, inevitably it crawled on at two miles an hour with an electric motor driving it, but did it detract from the experience? Not at all: in my mind it roared on and sped off again. We suspend our disbelief in service of a good story.

And theatre is always reliably the same: baring someone forgetting a line or tripping up on the scenery, it’s repeatable and predictable. Unlike watching acrobats performing, where the sense of danger or achievement can be tangible, in the theatre it’s made safe through harnesses and overacting.

It’s popular these days for TV and film stars to go back to theatre, as if some added credibility is attached to this live performance. In this case, Zack Braff took the lead, familiar to me from Scrubs and his wonderful film Garden State. Seeing his performance in real life differs from that of TV, it’s immediacy is clear and it added a layer of meaning the show, borrowed credibility from a different source.

Unlike either hockey or ballet, there was a more immediate connection to the audience: rather like pantomime, the actors were not averse to taking long meaningful looks into the audience as they milked the laughter at particular points.

Performance is a co-creative experience: it’s about the interactions within a team, a troupe, a cast, about the interaction with the music, the audience and the environment. Those interactions may be coordinated, choreographed, rehearsed or competitive and spontaneous. The music may adapt to the action or direct it, it may be responsive and live or recorded and repeated. The environment is a space to act within: these three spaces served common purposes of framing the action, of somehow constraining it. In ice hockey this is particularly noticeable as the curved sides of the rink are used to accelerate and steer the puck: the environment is part of the performance.

The audience also have their part to play: through rowdy abuse and support, through genteel cheering or guffaws of delight. On occasion, some lucky sports fan gets to catch (or be knocked out by) the flying puck as it leaves the hallowed ground and crosses the gap to the audience.

Walking out from the theatre, onto Broadway, one leaves the sacred ground and returns to normality, but the performance doesn’t stop there. Walking back up to Time Square, one sees street performers: no formal environment here, but rather the street as theatre, the pavement the stage and the audience passers by. Fully informal, sometimes illegal, street performance, like street art, is edgy, something stumbled upon, not planned, strangely immersive.

I remember coming across a Chinese Opera performance in Singapore: down a side street being staged in a car park. No tourist event, the language, style and story were unfamiliar to me and certainly nobody was speaking English to explain it. Even the music was Chinese, played in a different key and to a different tempo than those which i am familiar with. And yet the conventions of storytelling and performance were familiar: whilst the stage was tarmac, framed by an audience who had bought chairs from their houses and sat around eating their picnics, the performance followed convention. There was a space that was clearly ‘stage‘, and people wore costumes: clearly iconic, even though their significance was lost on me. The band, true to musicians everywhere, sat smoking at the edge, leaping to attention when required. The story was unfamiliar, the air of performance clear.

Wherever we gather in communities, we perform: prisoners in Colditz put on plays, schools do it, Apple puts on a performance when it launches a new iPad. Performance is co-creative, the meaning constructed by the audience and players or performers. It’s immersive and engaging, two things we strive hard to attain.

New York is vibrant: a collective sequence of performance spaces, some formal, some communal, some even illegal. Performance is complex: a relationship between performer and audience that is dynamic, created in the moment. And it can be magical.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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