Interpreting the Storied Past of the LA River Through Dance

A collaboration between artists, writers, and educators transforms one of LA’s most recognizable industrial wastelands into a feast for the creative spirit.

Photo courtesy of Barron Bixler

Photo courtesy of Barron Bixler

LA’s Project 51 co-founder Barron Bixler writes of the LA River that it is “the perfect grey trapezoid of concrete channel that’s become sort of iconic but mostly symbolizes a long string of mistakes that, finally, LA is beginning to undo.” In essence, this ambivalence about the river is the impetus for Project 51’s Play the River citywide collection of community happenings.

So how can a community both celebrate its iconography—a filming location for Point BlankPoint BreakDriveChinatown, GreaseRepo Man, and countless other American classics—and simultaneously wish to revitalize and return that iconography to its earliest incarnation? In this case, Project 51, a collaboration of artists, writers, and educators, formed to utilize this gorgeously decayed urban water source and organize 51 consecutive weeks of performances, installations, exhibitions, and open events along every 51 miles of the river.

October’s most anticipated performance comes from Pieter, an experimental dance space in the Lincoln Heights area, arguably one of the more industrial stretches of the river and definitely one of the most recognizable, with the intersection of the Arroyo Seco and strange habitats of greenery jutting up from the cement. For a full day of programming, Pieter will transform this space—formally called the Ed Reyes River Greenway—into a studio with “site-responsive choreographed works, improvisations, interactive happenings, and a free community yoga class.” The highlight of this will be a “Butoh” performance.

Butoh is an amalgam of dance, performance art, theater, and therapy, with seemingly endless boundaries. First created and practiced in Japan by an artist named Tatsumi Hijikata, the movement within the dance is actually highly stylized and meticulously choreographed. Hijikata was acutely aware of other dance forms and sought to negate them through Butoh, a similar kind of existentialism to the work of playwright Jean Genet, by whom Hijikata had been inspired. Focusing on decay and the grotesque turned beautiful, Butoh seems a particularly adaptive form for this reclamation of the LA River.

Choreographer Maya Gingery, who studied Butoh with Hijikata’s widow Akiko Motofuji, will prepare for the event by first inviting an element of chaos: Any member of the community can learn the Butoh performance in two consecutive workshops (five hours total) and participate at the exhibition. Performers will range from the experienced dancer of the Lincoln Heights warehouse studios to members of working-class families situated in the densely populated riverfront. Any and all are welcome to learn and perform the “dance of darkness” in an attempt to grapple with the identity of the LA River, from its origins as a lush wetland bursting with wildlife to its initial cementing by the Army in 1938, and forward into the future, where it will be a strange new combination of all its lifetimes.

Pieter invites all audience members to bring a non-monetary donation—cookies, tea, fruit, etc.—to share with others. Pieter’s vision for the performance is akin to a community potluck, a block party with a dash of high-minded art, but not so much you can’t eat a cupcake while watching.

Pieter Plays the River runs from 3–6pm on Sunday, October 26th. View the full Play the River calendar here, and find directions to the Ed Reyes River Greenway here.

This article originally appeared at Sixty Hotels and was written by A. Wolfe


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