Backstage Ethics

 John Hill
15. October 2018
Jorge Otero-Pailos, Répétiteur at New York City Center (Photo © SOE Studio)
Jorge Otero-Pailos, the artist and architectural preservationist known for The Ethics of Dust series, has completed a site-specific installation at New York City Center that celebrates the institution's 75th anniversary and the centennial of choreographer Merce Cunningham's birth.
Répétiteur, which refers to a person teaching a choreographer's work to dancers, consists of six light boxes with latex casts exhibiting dust from the walls of Harkness Studio, which the installation occupies. The casts were made before the studio was recently cleaned and restored, so they capture 75 years of the space's history. Built in 1923 as a meeting hall for members of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (a wood shrine still sits at one end of the studio), the building was converted to New York City Center in 1943 and became Manhattan's first performing arts center.

Harkness Studio is one of the building's many backstage spaces where dancers learn and practice before hitting the main stage. Therefore seeing Otero-Pailos's Répétiteur means experiencing a space normally off limits to the public. Its function as a space of learning is accentuated by the audio clips that accompany the six light boxes. Picking up on the way Cunningham introduced the element of chance into modern dance, the sound clips loop at different rates to create overlapping sound textures, variable gaps between clips (when the sound of dancers in other studios can be heard), and unique experiences for visitors seeing the otherwise static light boxes.
Jorge Otero-Pailos, Répétiteur at New York City Center (Photo © SOE Studio)
Speaking with Otero-Pailos over the weekend before Répétiteur opened to the public this week illuminated (no pun intended) many of the installation's subtle qualities. For instance, the mirror along one long end of the studio clearly enables the dancers to watch themselves practicing, but the slight downward tilt of the mirror (barely visible in the photos above) accentuates the surface of the floor and allows the dancers to see themselves from the perspective of the audience raised above the level of the stage. Furthermore, although Otero-Pailos could not make historical casts of the flooring, which has been replaced and cleaned many times over the decades, he placed the casts of the wall surfaces across and above the floor, inverting our usual relationship to these vertical surfaces.

The most striking aspect of Répétiteur is the way the latex casts, lighting, sound clips, and Harkness Studio itself all work together. Otero-Pailos explained to me that Cunningham would give dancers starting and ending points and positions, and then it would be up to the dancers to figure out how to move between them in the time allotted. The sound clips coming from speakers at the edges of the light boxes draw visitors across the room, from one cast to another. But with the sound clips out of phase, each visitors path (or the ones they choose to take) will be different. Given these qualities, Répétiteur is an exhibit that must be experienced to be appreciated. Thankfully, New York City Center is bringing it back in 2019 after its run this week.
Jorge Otero-Pailos, Répétiteur at New York City Center (Photo © SOE Studio)
Répétiteur is on display at New York City Center (130 West 56th Street, 4th Floor) from October 15th to 21st. It returns for two runs in 2019: March 2nd to 10th and April 29th to May 5th. All days are 10am to 6pm; the exhibit is free and open to the public.

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