Aunts Is Back, Turning City Blocks Into Dance Floors

Jasmine Hearn by Krisanne Johnson

At an Aunts event in June, Jasmine Hearn was draped in sculptural fabric, seemingly conjuring spirits on the sidewalk in Long Island City. Credit: Krisanne Johnson for The New York Times

Originally published in The New York Times

CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK

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.

Malcom-x Betts by Krisanne Johnson

Malcolm-x Betts, who is designing the barricades for Sunday’s event, in June during DJ Karlala’s dance party set. Credit: Krisanne Johnson for The New York Times

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.

Chloë Engel by Krisanne Johnson

Chloë Engel was seemingly everywhere at Aunts in Long Island City. Credit: Krisanne Johnson for The New York Times


“It’s getting a chance to try things out with a live audience and see what works and what doesn’t,” said Laurie Berg, a longtime Aunts organizer. “It’s like, ‘Did you just think of this as you were coming over on the subway?’ That’s great. That’s OK.”
 
Over the years, Aunts events have taken place at beaches, in museums and in lofts. There is no time limit for a performance; artists can repeat their pieces during an event, which lasts around two and a half hours, or perform just once. For audiences, it’s a different way to experience a performance: You can move closer to the dance or watch it from a distance. You choose where to look.

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.

Audience Members at AUNTS by Krisanne Johnson

From left, Sylvia Scahill, Josie Bettman and Tal Eshel. For audiences, Aunts is a different way to watch dance; you can move closer or watch from a distance. You choose where to look. Credit: Krisanne Johnson for The New York Times

“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.”

Symara Johnson by Krisanne Johnson

Symara Johnson sending out her golden sparks. Credit: Krisanne Johnson for The New York Times

And that’s a model — nurturing yet free — she believes in. What strikes Henderson about Aunts is the way it takes care of its artists. (For one, they are paid and will be even if the event is canceled because of rain; they will also have the option of performing at the September event if the July one is canceled.) A movement artist and vocal improviser who has nonprofit experience, she was new to Aunts but soon recognized it would be “a great opportunity for me to extend the care that I usually offer,” she said, “with this added layer of, I get to choose the artists that I’m caring for.”

Henderson’s concerns were that she didn’t “want to be at another dance event and be the only Black girl there” or at “another dance event where we’re all doing the same PoMo moves,” she said, referring to postmodern dance, “with serious faces in those funky Dansko shoes and gauchos.”

“That’s not my ministry,” she said. “And I was a little nervous about talking about that, but they were really cool. They were like, ‘Kadie, we get that.’”

With six organizers recommending artists to perform at events, Aunts reflects something else in this moment of contemporary dance: multiple and varied artistic voices both behind the scenes and performing. “Can you have a sound performer next to a movement performer next to someone who’s from hip-hop?” Lloyd said. “I was energized about a wide range of voices all doing different types of things and how that might create an exciting experience.”

Dance Party at AUNTS by Krisanne Johnson

At the dance party in June, from left: Alexandra Johnson, Morgan Bryant and Myssi Robinson. Credit: Krisanne Johnson for The New York Times

To Henderson, that collective energy builds artistic abundance. In Queens, she was even compelled to get behind the microphone and sing. “To be a part of something that brought solace and to be able to create a space that I found myself reflected in — of course, I’m going to be moved to sing,” she said. “I want to tap into that reservoir of, like, damn, we made it! And so many people didn’t. It’s my way of showing gratitude.”

Being involved with Aunts is also about the delight that it brings. Crawford, a dancer, also works at the Chocolate Factory Theater and was the production manager of the recent River to River Festival. She’s busy. But Aunts, for her, is worth it — and it’s all in the name. Aunts “has this loving, embracing, support that’s going to help you grow, that’s going to offer you experience, but it’s not like your mother,” she said. “And it’s not like your child. It’s this family member who’s here to let you do your thing.”

And, for now, Aunts has spilled that ethos out onto the street, not just for artists but for audiences, too; in many ways, they move as one. As outdoor sites go, the street is different, Young said, than a park, where during the pandemic she and plenty of dancers have spent hours working out choreography and taking class. “There is something about the friction, the structure, the concrete, the energy of a road that’s been blocked off,” she said. “It’s siphoned the energy even more: This is like an artery that is being contained for art.”

Gia Kourlas is the dance critic of The New York Times.

A version of this article appears in print on July 17, 2021, Section C, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Turning Streets Into Dance Floors. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe