Originally published in The New York Times
Aunts Is Back, Turning City Blocks Into Dance Floors
This creative performance experiment presents a roving adventure through space with Aunts Goes Public!
It wasn’t just that the barricades were pink, it was the shade of pink: shockingly vibrant, unabashedly joyful. On a steamy evening in June, these barricades were placed at either end of a Long Island City block, not just to stop traffic but to mark territory. For the next few hours, this was an Aunts-only zone. And while it can be tricky to describe exactly what Aunts is — it’s not an institution with a home base — it’s easy to say what it creates: a space for dance to happen.
On June 6, Aunts emerged from the pandemic with a new set of organizers and Aunts Goes Public!, the first of three summer events presented as part of Open Culture NYC, in which dance artists take over a city block. In typical Aunts fashion, the performances bled from one to the next, transforming a long street into a sensorial landscape of movement and sound. Kirsten Michelle Schnittker and Tara Sheena, dashing onto the pavement, echoed each other’s hops and swirling twists in a meditative, architectural arrangement that held their bodies in space — firmly, delicately.
Chloë Engel, lithe in red pants, was everywhere — her body a swirl of motion or still as she paused near a fence along the perimeter of a park. Jasmine Hearn, draped in sculptural fabric, was lost in their own world, seemingly conjuring spirits on the sidewalk. Later, Symara Johnson, with gold tinsel peeking out at her ankles and wrists, waved an arm back and forth sending out golden sparks. These performances, and several more, came in waves. Watching them was a little like being pulled and pushed around by water yourself.
The next Aunts takeover happens on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at South Oxford Street, between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue, in Brooklyn. The third is on Sept. 19. (An additional Aunts performance, in October, will be a collaboration with N.Y.U. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts and the Chocolate Factory Theater.) Each event, which ends with a dance party, includes around a dozen artists, as well as a D.J. and a barricade artist. Because participants in Open Culture NYC have to acquire their own barricades to block off the street, Aunts decided to turn that, too, into art. Jonathan Allen created them for the first event; for Sunday, Malcolm-x Betts will do the honors.
What to expect on Sunday? I like to think of Aunts as a roving adventure through performance and space. Beyond multiple performers — including Alexandra Albrecht, Rena Anakwe, Edie Nightcrawler and Ambika Raina — it’s unpredictable, a setting for overlapping performances and multidisciplinary work. An Aunts event is a place to try something out or to show a finished work. It’s malleable and artist-run, open-ended and nonjudgmental.
Formed in 2005 by Jmy James Kidd and Rebecca Brooks — though there have always been many participating organizers — Aunts was taken over by Berg and Liliana Dirks-Goodman in 2009. When Dirks-Goodman left New York for Philadelphia, Berg decided it was time to open up Aunts to a new generation of organizers. There are now six along with Berg: Shana Crawford, Kadie Henderson, Jordan D. Lloyd, Larissa Velez-Jackson and Jessie Young.
“For myself, the definition of curator is caretaker as opposed to tastemaker,” Berg said. “I’m a caretaker for Aunts. I’m a host and an organizer. But I don’t want to be a gatekeeper.”
“If it ends up looking really different than what it looked like when I started,” she added, “that’s fine because it can’t stay the same.”
Velez-Jackson, a choreographer and interdisciplinary artist with a strong base in improvisation, said that much of her work got its start at Aunts events. Her first performance at one was in September 2006. “Working live through improvisational material in front of an audience is really where the research would happen,” Velez-Jackson said. “It’s when you’re in front of live people that it’s much more real — you get better.”
And for many months, those experiences have been rare. At a time when so many performance opportunities were lost because of the pandemic, Aunts has a new relevance as choreographers to start working again in public. As Young put it, “It’s a mercurial shape-shifting organizing form that can infiltrate and press into spaces and challenge growth from the inside out.”