Square Dances

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Dance, Posts.

The safe, tidy environment of a proscenium stage is not the
preferred setting for choreographer Naomi Goldberg Haas. Outdoor spaces and
settings where dance is an unexpected element have become her specialty, and
she revels in the challenges of capturing the attention of a less-than-captive

She finds ways to win them over. By the time her ensemble,
Dances for a Variable Population, concluded its two weeks of performing Fanfare at the Whitehall Terminal for
the Staten Island Ferry in June 2009, she had people coming up to her saying
they missed the daily performances. “They said, we’ll always imagine the
terminal with flags, people in white dancing,” she says over tea in an Upper
West Side cafe.

Haas’ latest project celebrates the opening of the newly
renovated portion of Washington Square Park, and also welcomes the arrival of
summer. Washington Square Dances
builds from a “pre-show”—a prelude of sorts—in which quintets of dancers
perform in three different area of the park to an expansive finale for a cast
of 25, whose ages range from 24 to 81. In between, for the main portion of the
35-minute piece, the dancers will perform on the new open stage, to sections
of—as well as contemporary composers’ remixes of—Terry Riley’s seminal 1964
composition In C.

“What I love about doing pieces in public spaces is really embracing
what’s going on in the space. We always think about the space as a whole:
What’s happening here? How are people using this space? What would make an
interesting connection? Washington Square Park is very multi-directional.
Something’s happening up by the arch, by the fountain, lots of different
activities. Then there’s this added thing of the activity on the stage. And
there’s a sense of non-conformity in the park, in its history.”

Last year, Haas’ Autumn
was the first dance event commissioned by Friends of the High Line.
“They are totally committed to figuring how the community can embrace this
space. They have a lot of public programming and are very invested in figuring
out ways for people to participate in that landscape,” she says. That work did not
incorporate the element of public participation that Haas favors, and which was
part of the Ferry Terminal piece. That one—performed several times each
day—lasted 23 minutes, timed precisely to the ferry schedule.

Haas’ performers are true to her ensemble’s name, truly variable in
terms of age, experience and body type. She launched Dancers for a Variable
Population in 2005. “

When I first started working with this mixed
group, I thought I must be careful not to have the younger dancers show up the
older, less experienced performers. But what I quickly found out is that the
older people are so clear in what their movement is, that is actually started
to be, in many instances, the reverse, that the older dancer, by virtue of the
limitations, was so much more profound in terms of the expression. It’s very
curious. You’d think your eye would go more to the pyrotechnics.”

Pyrotechnical feats were a big part of where Hass
began in dance, as a student at the School of American Ballet, then a teenaged
dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet. But “ballet wasn’t my thing, it just
wasn’t for me,” although she does cherish the memory of being onstage in the Swan Lake ensemble, with Gelsey Kirkland
and Patrick Bissell guesting in the lead roles.

In shaping Washington
Square Dances
, Haas says, “

I was thinking a lot about the type of movement
we’re choosing. We’re really trying to make it personal for the dancers, in
terms of their movement expression. We have a commitment to working
multi-generationally, since our first pieces. My hope is that when you watch
the dance, you really feel that each person is very invested in what they’re
doing, has a very personal connection.” As for capturing the attention of the
dog walkers, child-tenders and highly variable population of the park itself on
a summer evening, she has a plan: “If you make something that’s interesting
enough, they’ll stay. That’s always the big drive—how can you make something
theatrical in a space, get people to think about something differently for a

June 22–25, Washington Square Park, enter park at Washington
& University Places; 6:30, Free.