In a movement parade inspired by water, dancers find their flow

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In a movement parade inspired by water, dancers find their flow
Performers in Madeline Hollander’s “Hydro Parade,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, June 10, 2023. The costumes’ loops reference the handles of water-bearing vessels at the Met. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Gliding past sculptures and paintings, coins in display cases and horses in armor are 15 dancers whose legs, in thigh-high blue waders, cut through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Streaming through hallways and spilling into galleries, their path is direct and driving as their limbs unspool in shapes that send them pivoting from front to back, spinning in place and even, in moments, popping into the air.

Now imagine that water is everywhere. And that the dancers are flowing through it.

When creating “Hydro Parade,” performed at the museum on Saturday nights in June — there is one show remaining — Madeline Hollander made an important discovery: Beneath the Met is the Old Croton Aqueduct, the waterway that supplied water to New York City beginning in the 19th century.

Hollander, a choreographer who likes to explore hidden systems and then create new ones, was relieved. When the Met approached her to create a work for its performance series, MetLiveArts, she had been overwhelmed. “It’s an encyclopedic collection,” she said. “I get lost every single time I’m there,” she said of the museum. “I was like, OK, I need years to figure this out.”

Instead of years, she spent two weeks exploring the museum — meeting with heads of engineering, lighting, graphics. “I met with the two women that run lost and found,” she said. “I got a tour of the rooftop.”

It was when she went down to the basement, she said, that she learned the Croton Aqueduct ran diagonally through the museum: “That you could walk through it, that you could actually take tours of it up higher, in the Bronx. It kind of burst open this really complex and incredible history of water in New York — and that tied so deeply into these previous works that I had done.”

Hollander, a former ballet dancer who is also a visual artist, has created a new way of approaching choreography. In “Ouroboros: Gs,” the flood mitigation system at the Whitney Museum of American Art became the subject for her movement research; “Heads/Tails,” her first exhibition without people, focused on elements related to traffic flow. And for “Hydro Parade,” she attended classes for tour guides to learn about the history of water in New York City.

The longer she spent exploring the museum, the more she realized how much water there was out in the open, from the many fountains to the reflecting pool in the Temple of Dendur.

Certain galleries were off-limits, but “Hydro Parade” surges around many of the museum’s water features in uninterrupted movement. At times the dancers slow down; at others, it’s as if they were on water skis. At one point, they splinter off. Last Saturday, some viewers lost sight of the dancers, prompting one to say, “They should have flags like at Trader Joe’s.”

Losing your way in a dance about water is somehow appropriate: Water can’t be held. In “Hydro Parade,” the choreography runs in two loops, so you have a second shot to follow it to completion. It’s worth it. When the dancers finally depart for good — flowing into infinity — it’s somehow as refreshing and joyful as having been in water.

For Hollander, the interest in the Met and its relationship to water led not just to “Hydro Parade,” but to 27 watercolors, now on display at Bortolami gallery on Walker Street. She used water sourced from one of the natural springs beneath the museum to make the paintings.

The costumes needed to bring the theme to life, too. “How are we going to become a flowing river of dancers that’s also a parade?” she said. That’s when she noted how many water-bearing vessels there are at the Met.

She took photos of pots, of vases. “We are these walking water bearers ourselves,” she said, “so I wanted to create these vessels that we would be wearing.”

Costume designer Andrew Jordan took cues from the vessels’ handles; those shapes are attached to each of the dancers’ shoulders, giving their sleek silhouettes the look of superhero surfers. In order to pass one another, they must flatten themselves.

The precise sequences, created in collaboration with the dancers, come with aquatic names: Splash, Water Waltz, Paddle Waltz, Dive, Carwash. Meditative and addictive, some of them resemble social line dances. Carwash features two steps forward with a backward swish and a hip thrust. Paddle Waltz, performed in canon, includes tight turns that change direction before immediately switching to the other side. And for Coin Toss, the group observed the way visitors made a wish and tossed their coins into the museum’s fountains.

As the dancers enter the great hall, they pass a room with ancient coins and continue through the Egyptian wing before entering the Temple of Dendur, all the while flinging, throwing, spinning. Whether you’re aware of the intricacies of the movement phrases or not, the dancers create pictures as they peel off like synchronized swimmers or bounce in place as if prepping for a dive.

At the second performance, there was a subtle strength to this stream of bodies. During the first loop, when the museum was still crowded, the dancers’ presence hushed the viewers — even those who had no idea what was going on. It has to do with the way the dancers are encouraged to notice everything around them. Of course, they must pay attention to one another, but they also observe the museumgoers, the artwork, the guards, the light. They draw energy to them.

“It’s having this kind of 360-degree vision at all times,” Hollander said, which is one reason each sequence has steps facing forward and backward. “That’s specifically so that you see everything around you every two seconds.”

If Hollander had her way, she would have had 100 dancers. “There wouldn’t be any beginning or end, because I really wanted that feeling of a gushing, continuous flow through the museum in the same way that all of the water moves through the fountains,” she said.

And the more dancers, she said, the more an audience can absorb the movement. “You begin to learn that the choreography is not just about footwork or technique or turnout or stamina,” Hollander said. “It’s also about this giant shape we’re making for the museum.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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