A dancer’s chiffon skirt grazed my ankle. I turned and we locked eyes, my uneasy gaze meeting her bold stare; a second passed. She crumpled to the floor, eyes penetrating the ceiling, and gasped for air. I held my breath too.
From September 21 to 24, the Diana Center stairs became a dancer’s domain for the sui generis performance the stairs. Eight Barnard and School of General Studies students and alumni enlivened the building’s bleak greyness with site-specific choreography by Barnard dance professor Caitlin Trainor. Funded by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, this multidimensional work challenged the norms of the proscenium stage and use of instrumental or vocal music.
The dancers brought raw feeling and human idiosyncrasies above, on, and within the confines of a geometric stairwell. Dancers flipped, dangled, climbed, and collapsed. “There is something about the contrasts, Trainor said. “The hardness and greyness of the surfaces, very unyielding structures, with the messiness of the human body—all curves. Alive. Vulnerable.”
Movements, music, and milieu were evidently interconnected in the performance. The piece’s namesake was the provenance for nearly all of its aspects. “It would’ve felt inorganic to pipe in music into this type of setting. People are talking. They’re on their cell phones. There’s sounds of the bodies within the space. Footfalls. It felt artificial to ignore that,” Trainor said. The reverberating acoustics of the area provoked a unique soundtrack: The hisses, snaps, whinnies, and murmurs that compose the recorded musical score were created by dancers on the stairs.
It felt eerie for such sounds to bounce off the halls of Diana. “We want to distort students’ perception of a place they come to regularly,” dancer Falls Kennedy, BC ’17, said.
Standing on the second and third floor platforms and scattered along the stairs, the crowd wandered the space throughout the performance, striving to get the best view possible. To Trainor, the interaction was a welcome challenge. “I liked playing with the proximity of the dancers,” she said. “Having the dancers nearly brush up on the audience, breathing, hair flying in close range—then having a bird’s eye view where the dancers are very removed from the audience.”
“You have to expect the unexpected,” Kennedy said. “People don’t always stand in the perfect place.” Shuffling along the platform, leaning over the banister, and sometimes squirming to avoid the dancers’ reach was an experience individual to each audience member.
Trainor and the performers collaborated with videographer Gus Reed to create a short film called the stairs. “I view the video as another component of the work, in which we could really push its anti-gravity, disorientation, and peculiarity,” Trainor said. Having reached over 3,000 views on Facebook, the video has expanded the reach of the project, creating a wider audience in new dimensions.
The performance was influenced by renowned choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s “Rosas danst Rosas”, a piece that similarly features female dancers erupting within their caged environment. “That intense emotionality against the cool hard steps—that has a little bit of a flavor of de Keersmaeker for me,” Trainor said.
the stairs adds another dimension that magnifies the “flavor”: distorting perception. The work was also inspired in part by artist M.C. Escher’s geometric lithographs, sometimes called “the impossible staircases,” which disturb the viewer’s perspective with optical illusions and unconventional depiction of gravitation.
“Stairs are approached in such an organized way. We are either ascending up or descending the stairs. I liked the idea of disrupting that order in the way that Escher does,” Trainor said.
The relationships between the dancers seemed a microcosm of the Barnard community. “The age of the women that are here, it is a heightened time emotionally,” Trainor said. At times, the dancers were supporting one another to reach greater heights of the stairs. Other times they were detached, each nestled within their own window frame, or “pocket of isolation.”
Slap click hiss. It echoed throughout the tri-level “stage”, and the dancers all reacted individually. Surrounded by structure but enveloped in emotion, the stairs transformed viewers’ perceptions of the Diana Center. As the dancer rigid at my feet expelled the air from her lungs, her arms fell limp and legs began propelling her away from the crowd. The dancers rippled down the stairs, and I was left in a daze, leaning over the balcony and peering three stories below.
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