PUBLIC PLACEMAKING

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Bright umbrellas twirl over the crowd, the sound of a marching band blaring over the noise of Seattle’s busy waterfront. As I fight my way from the aquarium towards Pier 57, where tourists are knotted by the Great Wheel, a whirling procession of dancers from Kinesis Project Dance Theatre, in bright tunics and black boots, twist and turn their way up the waterfront, followed by the Filthy FemCorps Marching Band, most badass-looking all-women marching band I’ve ever seen. The curious crowd fills in behind the parade. Onlookers high five the umbrella-twirlers. The procession explodes out onto the pier, the dancers breaking apart, exuberant, with a loping, graceful momentum that carries them in and out of breezy duets and back into seemingly improvised individual movement.

Photo by John C. Robinson.

Choreographed by Melissa Riker, who leads Kinesis Project in New York, this collaboration with Friends of Waterfront Seattle zeroes in on what a public space is for—what does it do? How do communities come together in it to play, work, breathe? Using the future site of Waterfront Park, In Our Wake occupies the fullness of that space, bringing its viewers up and down the piers, under ledges, into trees, pulling them together and inviting them to connect.

After the initial whirling stops, the dancers cluster together, umbrellas out. Lorraine Lau emerges, a neon orange train of seemingly infinite length, designed by fabric artist Celeste Cooning, trailing behind her. She makes her slow, deliberate way towards the end of the pier, commandeering a picnic table from two unsuspecting bystanders. The twist of her torso and arms is swift, expertly controlled. With the help of other dancers, the train transforms into a bright canopy spanning the pier, catching viewers under it in a warm, sunset glow.

Photo by John C. Robinson

This sets the tone of the audience participation—subtle and inviting, never threatening or intimidating. We’re not being asked to be seen or to perform, but just to be. Riker and her dancers playfully integrate the audience, engaging a sense of community. This makes sense, given Friends of Waterfront Seattle’s aim of investing in public space, and Kinesis Project’s interest in placemaking. Dancers make (and hold) eye contact with viewers; seat themselves around unwitting spectators; get viewers to follow them wherever they wander around the waterfront without having to ask even once. Over time interactions become more involved; past the halfway mark, dancers launch into a satisfying unison phrase, their momentum carrying them recklessly into the audience as they break into quick, playful gestures and silly interactions. The pedicab driver costumed as Captain America bounces his shoulders with the music as he pedals by. The movement, which is by turns playfully groovy, recklessly joyful, controlled and deliberate, retains an undercurrent of a gentle invitation to connect.

There’s also a beautiful sense of connection among the dancers. In one section, dancers move along a railing in three unison duets, rolling gently over each other’s backs, gazing side-by-side out at the water. The duets feel tender and believable. Later, I catch two dancers standing on opposite ends of the pier share a sly grin as if sharing a joke that we’re let in on. What works so well about the intimacy among the performers is this lack of exclusivity; they’re always welcoming the audience in to share their joy.

Photo by Brett Love

Riker’s use of space engages the audience from all angles, keeping the dancers (and the audience) traveling up and down the pier. The audience kept growing as dancers filled more and more space on the waterfont, roping in additional bystanders. In some sections I could only see part of the action, a dancer’s joyful head, arm, umbrella popping up from the other side of a ledge, while in others I was right below a dancer moving above me. I also wonder—I knew there would be a performance at Pier 58 that day at that time, but for the rest of the viewers, passing through, the emergence of these bright, shining movers and brassy band might be like being transported into another world. Or maybe having another world suddenly sprout through the planks of the pier and exuberantly wave hello at you.  

Riker and her dancers also tap into the creative potential of the physical space. A dancer leaps up onto a raised tree enclosure, swinging around the trees. She peeks out from behind them as if playing hide and seek, walking along the edge like a balance beam, revealing the hidden possibilities of the space as a playground. The articulation of her hands echoes the spiky pines of the tree above her, legs stretching out parallel to the tree limbs, revealing an attention to detail in the physical environment. 

Photo by Brett Love

Towards the close of the performance, Lau again bursts from a cluster of umbrellas, orange train trailing, this time looping around the fountain and passing the train off to Robert Moore. He gracefully pushes forward, articulating his arms, and the canopy opens over my head again, bathing me in orange light. It feels comforting and familiar. Of course I’ve been here before; it’s a pier I’ve been to many times, yet somehow the addition of the canopy inscribes a new sense of “here,” a space where connections can happen, an enclosed, warm, safe space. If the question is, “how do we use a public space?” In Our Wake answers, “we make it.” The connections built up throughout the piece—among performers, between dancers and audience, among viewers—took the performers’ time and energy to forge. It’s up to us to return to the space, invigorated by the experience, and continue to make it happen.


In Our Wake was presented at Seattle’s Pier 58, August 10th & 11th, 2019. [https://www.friendsofwaterfrontseattle.org/in_our_wake_20190811]

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