Though I saw Smashworks Dance’s CITY STORIES over a month ago, it still lingers in the back of my mind. As a New Yorker, how could it not? The images from the show are the images of my daily life. Flashes of scenes and movements weave their way through my commute and my coffee run, popping up like absurdist smash-cuts in early-2000s sitcoms. That’s where Artistic Director Ashley McQueen’s magic lies: the source material is everyday, the execution is something else entirely.
McQueen’s hour-long multimedia performance CITY STORIES premiered at Williamsburg’s Center for Performance Research with a three-show run on November 18 and 19. CITY STORIES brings together choreography and video projections from Ashley McQueen and text-art from Benny Cruz into an “episodic pastiche of emotional peaks and valleys.” Narrative but non-linear, scenes of humor, grind, despondency, and liberation are threaded together by an almost clown-like narrator (think King Lear’s Fool).
Unlike the other dancers, she is able to reach, quite literally, into the audience and bring them into the whirlwind. She incorporates messages from the audience on handwritten Metropolitan Transit Authority subway maps (provided to audience members before the show), instantaneously turning these found fragments into choreography. CITY STORIES unfolds like a collection of short stories: each vignette arcs and is satisfying in its own right, and together they build the architecture of New York City’s dance.
In a pretty ingenious use of Center for Performance Research’s stark, white-box theatre, McQueen fills the space with wall-to-wall-to-wall video projections. It sounds very overwhelming; I assure you it was not. Or at least, it was not overwhelming in a way that wasn’t calculated and intentional. Technicolor scenes inundate the space with electricity and shadows of additional bodies, a la Times Square on steroids. With swift editing and hyper-saturated landscapes, McQueen brings CITY STORIES to a surreal peak, pulls it back to reality, and then rockets the audience into pumped up fantasy. Smashworks’ aesthetic voice is loud, boisterous, and welcome.
Though McQueen’s New York is not an easy one–the dancers often move through the space with unabashed fury and abandon–it retains the earnest spark of falling in love for the first time. She acknowledges that living here is not an easy feat: her apartment projection crams four dancers into a seven-foot space and the fatigue of capitalism repeatedly forces the dancers to the floor.
Yet. There’s buoyancy. There’s Washington Square Park bathed in a warm glow while Ella Fitzgerald croons. There’s joy. And that joy ultimately outweighs the effort. This, I think, is where Smashwork’s dance artists truly shine. Concert contemporary dance is not known for displaying the full range of human emotions, and certainly not in a way that is so eagerly expressive, yet the plasticity of these artists’ faces was remarkable. Without any sense of shyness or shame, they twisted their features into expressions of delight, disgust, and exhaustion, jump-roping the line between camp and sincerity. I don’t often hear the audience laugh at these sorts of performances, but the ensemble’s off-kilter face-pulls brought exhilarating hilarity.
All of this, of course, hinges on McQueen’s powerful group of artists. Though precise and athletic, their command was such that the choreography never felt strained or laborious. No, their effort wasn’t hidden by a mirage of ease, but neither is the effort of daily life in the city. McQueen allowed their humility to stay present and visible to the audience. We are, of course, all just humans, after all. I felt a sort of sympathy in their labor, and immense hope when they were able to pull themselves up again and again.
CITY STORIES is refreshingly uncynical. It’s the frustrated and spell-bound love letter we’ve all written to New York City. In the unforgiving landscape of project-based dance, I truly hope Smashworks is able to bring it back.
Smasworks Dance is a New York-based group of movers dedicted to accessible dance performance and confidence-building education.