Arts on Site
Jan 20, 2024
Dis Place; Paper Edition (Premiere)
Choreography and Video Editing: Aviva Geismar
Concept and Direction: Kirk German, Heather Huggins, and Aviva Geismar
Videography and Editing Consulting: Peter W Richards
Core Performers: Kendra J Bostock, Clement Mensah, and Aviva Geismar
Additional Performers: Kelsey Burns, Joshua Gonzalez, and Nadia Simmons
Spoken Word: Kendra J Bostock
Photographs: Margaret Morton
Interview Subjects: Tito Delgado, Margaret Yuen, and Rob Robinson
Dis Place; the Word (Premiere)
Choreography: Aviva Geismar in Collaboration with the performers
Direction and Dramaturgy: Jodi Van Der Horn-Gibson
Collaborating Performers: Clement Mensah, Nadia Simmons, Diána Worby, and Aviva Geismar
Costumes: Emily Hsieh
Video images of buildings in rubble layer over two figures repeatedly assembling and demolishing a structure of blocks. In a cramped space, performer Clement Mensah twists and contorts trying to find comfort in confinement. Dis Place, choreographer Aviva Geismar’s two part, multimedia exploration of America’s history of displacement, packs an emotional punch. In part one, Paper Edition, Geismar overlaps cityscape photos with spoken word and movement, its crux a deep dive into the history of “urban renewal,” specifically in the Seward Park area of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Dis Place raises larger issues: the human right to a home, the experience of being evicted, and New York City’s ongoing housing crisis.
As the voices of displaced NYC residents Tito Delgado, Margaret Yuen, and Rob Robinson speak about the realities of being unhoused and recite stark data detailing the effects urban renewal laws have on the community, performers Kendra J.Bostock and Mensah futilely attempt to erect a paper roof above their heads. Plastered with rent statements and eviction notices, Mensah and Bostock push, pull, rip and tape back together a large piece of butcher paper, desperately attempting to provide cover. Images of burned buildings and the construction of newer, more modern ones fill the background. Mensah and Bostock stuff themselves into small cardboard boxes, still searching for a place of safety. The words gentrification, displacement, criminalization, and homelessness play on a continuous loop and provide a poignant sound score for Geismar, dressed in a costume made of shredded eviction notices, as she writhes on a small bench. Geismar’s choice of digital media is powerful- its ability to direct the audience's eye, focus the action into narrow focus, and superimpose disparate images creates a fiercely claustrophobic and desperate atmosphere.
However, seeing is never quite as effective as experiencing. Geismar uses the second half of the evening, The Word, to make palpable the ordeal of displaced individuals and the contradictions of housing policy. Performers Nadia Simmons and Mensah emerge from the wings like playground bullies, demanding several audience members sitting in the front row leave their seats. In loud voices dripping with authority and annoyance, they demand, talk over, and dismiss their evicted guests. Confusion abounds. Is this real? Are we all going to be forced out of our seats? Will these chosen few go quietly? As the performers recite portions of the Eminent Domain clause, explaining the right of the government to possess private property and convert it for public use by providing just compensation to those affected, the three expelled audience members are ushered to a row of chairs set up at the back of the stage. Without warning, their vantage point in a proscenium theater has been compromised. They have been separated from the friends they came with. They were not given a choice in the matter. Is this “just compensation?”
Through movement phrases that are both boneless yet sculpturally specific, a hallmark of Geismar’s style, dancers Diána Worby, Mensah, Simmons and Geismar sag and stagger. Their weighted propulsions sometimes toss them around the stage like tumbleweeds of trash, and at others carve the space purposefully in search of stability. In their tumult of motion, a sense of being unmoored, cast off and floating, prevails. Yet there is also resiliency and strength present. In a particularly moving and detailed trio, Mensah, Worby and Simmons collapse and assemble, using physical connection to maintain tenuous balance. A foot makes contact with a leg, hands reach for an elbow, and the three dancers move through shifting tableaux as if continually rebuilding their vital, structural connections.
Not all in Dis Place is dark. Geismar infuses the live section with wry humor as taped together cereal boxes, plastic water bottles, and cardboard containers of cat litter are scattered around the stage. Once more the audience is called upon to participate, this time voluntarily. A man is handed a comically large blow-up baseball bat and instructed to demolish the structures of recycled artwork. He does so with glee and abandon. From the safety of “home” in our chairs, we are offered the privilege to giggle too, forgetting for a moment Geismar’s illustration of the recklessness inherent in policies that damage many while profiting few. However the formerly displaced audience members still seated at the back of the stage, closer to the demolition than they were when the evening began, serve as a reminder of reforms that still need to be made.