The Aunts Are Back, Turning Blocks Into Dance Floors


Not only was the barricades pink, it was the shade of pink: surprisingly lively, unabashedly cheerful. On a steamy evening in June, these barricades were placed at both ends of the Long Island City block not only to stop traffic but also to mark the area. For the next few hours, this was just Aunts territory. And although it’s hard to describe exactly what aunts is is — not an institution with a home base — it’s easy to say what it has created: a space for dance to happen.

Aunts Goes Public on June 6th, the first of three summer events presented as part of Open Culture NYC, with a new set of organizers and dance performers taking over a city from the pandemic! came out with. In typical Aunts fashion, performances flow from one to the next, transforming a long street into a sensory scene of action and sound. Kirsten Michelle Schnittker and Tara Sheena leap onto the pavement, repeating each other’s jumps and whirling twists in a meditative, architectural arrangement that holds their bodies firmly and gracefully in space.

Chloë Engel in red pants was all over the place—her body was motionless as she stood next to a whirlpool of movement or a fence along the perimeter of a park. Clad in a sculptural cloth, Jasmine Hearn was lost in her own world, apparently summoning spirits on the pavement. Next, Symara Johnson swung her arm back and forth, with golden tinsel visible from the bottom of her pants and ankles, sparking golden sparks. These performances and more have come in waves. Watching them was a bit like being pulled and pushed by water.

next Aunts takeover It takes place at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on South Oxford Street, between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn. The third is on September 19. (An additional performance of the Aunts in October, Skirball Performing Arts Center and Chocolate Factory Theater.) Nearly a dozen artists, a DJ and a barricade performer take part in each event, which ends with a dance party. Since Open Culture NYC attendees needed to acquire their own barricades to block the street, Aunts decided to turn this into art, too. Jonathan Allen created them for the first event; On Sunday, Malcolm-x Betts will receive the honor.

What to expect on Sunday? I like to think of aunts as a performance and an adventure navigating through space. Alexandra Albrecht, Rena Anakwe, Edie Nightcrawler and Ambika Raina—an environment for unpredictable, overlapping performances and multidisciplinary work. Aunties event is a place to try something or show off a finished job. It’s malleable and artist-led, open-ended and non-judgmental.

“It’s a chance to try things out with a live audience and see what works and what doesn’t,” said longtime Aunt promoter Laurie Berg. “Did you think about that when you came on the subway?’ That’s great. That’s good.”

Over the years, there have been Aunts incidents on the beaches, in museums and attic floors. There is no time limit for a performance; artists can repeat their works in an event that lasts about two and a half hours, or they can only take the stage once. For the audience, it’s a different way to experience a performance: you can approach the dance or watch it from afar. You choose where to look.

Founded in 2005 by Jmy James Kidd and Rebecca Brooks – although 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. Open the aunts to the next generation of organizers. Now there are six with Berg: Shana Crawford, Kadie Henderson, Jordan D. Lloyd, Larissa Velez-Jackson, and Jessie Young.

“For myself, the definition of curator is watchdog as opposed to taster,” Berg said. “I am the caretaker of the aunts. I am a host and organizer. But I don’t want to be the gatekeeper.”

“If it looks really different than it did when I started, that’s okay because it can’t stay the same,” he added.

A choreographer and interdisciplinary artist with a strong foundation in improvisation, Velez-Jackson said most of her work began at Aunt events. His first performance was in September 2006. “Working live on improvised material in front of an audience was where the research would take place,” said Velez-Jackson. “It gets a lot more real when you’re in front of live people – you get better.”

And for months these experiences were very rare. At a time when many performance opportunities have been lost due to the pandemic, the Aunts have a new interest in getting back to working publicly as choreographers. As Young puts it, “This is a shape-shifting, shifting form of organization that can infiltrate and press into gaps and challenge growth from the inside out.”

And this is the nurturing but free model he believes in. What is striking Henderson It’s about the aunts, the way she deals with her artists. (For one, it will be paid and even if the event is canceled due to rain; if the July event is cancelled, they will have the option to perform at the September event as well.) A movement artist and vocal improviser with nonprofit experience was new to Aunts, but it soon became clear that “the care I usually offer” realized that it would be a “great opportunity for me to expand”, “with this additional layer, select artists I’m interested in.”

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

“This is not my ministry,” he said. “I was a little nervous talking about it but they were really cool. ‘Kadie, we receive it.'”

Aunts, where six organizers suggest artists perform at events, reflects something else in this moment of contemporary dance: the many and varied artistic voices, both behind the scenes and in performance. “Can you be a voice artist alongside a movement artist alongside someone from hip-hop?” said Lloyd. “I was energetic about a wide range of sounds that do different kinds of things and how that can create an exciting experience.”

According to Henderson, this collective energy creates artistic abundance. He even had to get behind the microphone and sing in Queens. “I will take action to be part of something that is comforting and to be able to create a space in which I find myself reflected – of course, to sing,” she said. “I want to take advantage of that reservoir, damn it, we did it! And a lot of people didn’t. That’s my way of showing my gratitude.”

Taking care of aunts is also about the pleasure it brings. A dancer, Crawford also works at the Chocolate Factory Theatre, and was most recently the production manager of the film. From the River to the River Festival. He is busy. But for her, aunts are worth it – and all for the sake of it. Aunts said, “She has this loving, embracing, support that will help you grow, that will give you the experience, but not like your mother.” “And not like your child. This family member is here to let you do your job.”

And for now, the Aunts brought that morality out onto the street, not just for the artists but for the audience as well; they act as a whole in many ways. Young said that as outdoor spaces progress, the street is different from a park where he and many dancers spent hours working on choreography and taking lessons during the pandemic. “There’s something about the friction, the structure, the concrete, the energy of a blocked road,” he said. “It absorbed the energy even more: It’s like an artery held for art.”


Sunday at 5:30 p.m. in Brooklyn, South Oxford Street, between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue; Control Instagram for weather updates.


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