The circle forms and breaks again


by Nathaniel Popkin
September 10, 2007

We live amidst the constant and haunting specter of loss. Things — people, moments, sensations, buildings, murals — come, and when they are with us it is as if they have always been. As B Love wrote on Friday, Josette Urso and Parris Stancell’s mural Cirque du Soleil was one of those things. What a pretty, soaring, and wonderfully decorative painting it was. Now it is gone. B Love’s photograph of the mural, which captures a young woman pushing a baby stroller walking by it, enhances the melancholy of time.

That mural was part of a special circle of our everyday life, a jewel on the chain; now that chain is broken. But one circle breaks, another forms. It is the choreography of city life.

 Friday night, amidst the rubble of failure, another circle formed. At Second and Race, below the Ben Franklin Bridge is a large site slated several years ago for an elegant condominium building, Old City 205. Designed by SHoP, this was to be a piece of urban art, responsive to its surroundings, of glass and steel in the rich hues of the hard-working city. The Historic Commission approved the project; a construction fence was erected with a sign, which stands today. Only thing — the condos didn’t sell and last year the developer pulled plug. The empty lot in the gateway location remained: sand, gravel, chain link fence.

Amidst the cacophonic pageant of First Friday, an improbable circle formed there. It appeared as the marking of beings from another world. The circle itself had been carved from the gravel by the video artist Tobin Rothlein and choreographer Amanda Miller (together MIRO Dance Company) in collaboration with Nadia Hironaka. Playing with the physics concept of particle acceleration, their idea was to express the power of sound and motion.

In Principles of Uncertainty, which is to be a model itself for large-scale multi-media performance, fifty drummers in two circles (one inside the other) beat in unison and there emerged fifteen white-clad dancers, accelerated like atoms, racing — colliding, moving, reversing, glancing — for fifteen long and glorious minutes. Moving video was projected on the exposed wall of the building to the west (the vacant site was the modernist Lithographic Building) forming a dynamic and self-acknowledging temporal mural. The mural was three videos, the first and most powerfully visual was a swirling circle of the site itself: the buildings across the street, the blank wall, the bridge. Around and around it went. To the north were the dancers projected in muted stance, practicing modern and traditional dance, as antiques. At the base of the wall was an undulating bar graph, capturing the particle acceleration and collision, and a clock, which enhanced the power of temporality. At eleven minutes thirty seconds the Speedline train passed over head and motion extended in all directions.

What happened when two dancers collided? They changed course. Occasionally one broke the circle, her momentum carrying her off the track and out among the crowd — and there she danced in the lissome air, a free and uncontrolled radical.

Earlier in the day I had sat down with Harris Steinberg of PennPraxis. He explained the concept behind the waterfront plan his group is now completing. It is this simple: extend the street grid all the way to the river. Lay the city down, he told me like a sage uncle, and time will fill it in.

The city, as he sees it, is that enormous particle accelerator. The drums are always beating.

–Nathaniel Popkin

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