Without the crowd gathered around, you might have missed her: lying in the branches of a tree, as if dozing in her natural habitat, a woman adorned with feathers and tulle. At the quick sound of a bell, she began to fidget, arching her muscular back, the beginning of a delicate descent to Earth from her comfortable perch.
This avian-human creature was dancer Celeste Hastings, the first of seven women to perform in Richard Move’s “Herstory of the Universe,” which premiered on Governors Island on Saturday. A six-part, nearly three-hour journey, the living and whimsical “Herstory” weaves its way across the island, stopping at sites where solos and duos emerge from the landscape.
Move (which uses the them / them pronouns) is perhaps best known for conjuring modern dance matriarch Martha Graham, in comedic, devout performances that they described as akin to spirit possession. (The term “identity theft” annoys them.) The wonderful cast of “Herstory,” aged 22 to 64, includes current and former members of the Graham Society – the elegant Natasha M. Diamond-Walker, the fierce PeiJu Chien-Pott. And the movement, choreographed in collaboration with the actors, borrows from Graham’s dramatic idiom.
At each stop of the scenic walk of about a kilometer, we meet one or two other figures of the mythical pantheon imagined by Move, animated with the help of the fantastic costumes of Karen Young. According to the program notes, the characters are inspired by the ecology and architecture of Governors Island, as well as elements of Japanese, Indian and Greek mythology.
Outside the Nolan Park Climate Museum – an elm-strewn lawn surrounded by 19th-century houses – the butoh-trained Hastings channel the black-headed gull, a local gull with a cackling cry. Attempting at first, she speeds up and gives up after plucking a mechanical bird from under a nest of giant eggs, a suggestion of giving and receiving life.
In “Devrai (Sacred Grove)”, the formidable Megumi Eda slides and leaps through the grass of Hammock Grove, a quiet neighborhood set back from the pedestrian walkways – and, during those 15 minutes, her kingdom. On the granite steps known as the ‘scramble’, which meander to the newly constructed Outlook Hill, Robyn Cascio climbs or swings over the rocks, as if on a pedestal, striking athletic poses and finely engraved.
The word “site-specific” is sometimes used extensively, applied to works that are not so specific to their sites. But the vignettes that make up “Herstory,” which is the first performance work commissioned by the Trust for Governors Island, are inseparable from their environment. At the top of Outlook Hill, in “Demolition Angels,” Diamond-Walker and Gabrielle Willis scale a steep, grassy slope in sheer dresses, unfazed by the terrain as they rush and jump. In the urgent “Amaterasu”, named after the sun goddess in Japanese mythology, Chien-Pott rushes along the switchbacks of Discovery Hill, sometimes just a distant blur but always radiant.
In the grand finale, “Hamadryad”, acrobat Lisa Giobbi plays the titular tree nymph of Greek mythology, with stunning views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty behind her. Aided by Yoni Kallai, who controls her harnesses, she floats along the branches of a towering tree, achieving an illusion of weightlessness from another world.
Although its structure and schedule can be overwhelming at times, “Herstory” is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon and experience the beauty of Governors Island; its glimpses of old-fashioned theatrical magic outweigh any logistical flaws. Unfortunately, on Saturday, the insistent presence of a buzzing drone camera – part of a New York Public Library’s video documentation project for the Performing Arts – often distracted attention from the work and its sound. natural setting. It was a drawback for those who were there, but good, at least, for future viewers, who may encounter “Herstory” long after it leaves the island.
History of the Universe
Until October 16 on Governors Island; govisland.com.