Produced by Marc Santo & Scott Newman
Camera: Rainer Evans
Edited by Eben Bull
Introduction by Marc Santo
Interview by Scott Newman
An abandoned city pool in Brooklyn, an austere stairway in a New York City courthouse clock tower, a desolate parking garage and the flowing exterior walls of a Frank Gehry building are just a few of the locations transformed into stages for the performances of Noémie Lafrance.
The Quebec-born site-specific choreographer moved to New York in 1994 and continues to use the urban landscape as her creative palette. Her goal is to reinvent the meaning and beauty of space by producing live performances in locations that might otherwise go unrecognized.
A two-time Bessie Award winner who has collaborated with artists such as Doug Aitken at MoMA and musicians like Feist in her awardwinning music videos, Noémie has earned a strong footing in the New York art world. As the artistic director of Sens, a New York experimental arts organization, Noémie Lafrance lends an alternative and inspiring view of what is often overlooked in New York.
Scott Newman: What is site-specific work as opposed to traditional performance?
NOÉMIE LAFRANCE: There are other choreographers who confine their work to a theater or a venue, but I work with architecture and our psychological relationship to space. Part of my job is to interpret space and not tamper with it too much. I hide the speakers, lighting and equipment so they’re not part of the audience’s sight line. This makes the performance feel like real life. If I were to set up a stage and bring all this gear, it would become an experience that’s separate from the space, which is exactly what I don’t want to do.
Scott: What do you look for when choosing a space?
NOÉMIE: When I think about space, I think about the reaction that space gives you. If you enter a quaint space you might feel cozy or if you enter a really large space you might feel oppressed, so it really depends on the type of performance. With my performance, “Noir,” which had a film noir theme, I wanted to do it in a parking garage, so the space had to do more with the concept. Instead of sitting in seats, the audience sat in parked cars and tuned into a radio station that played the sound of the show. Parking lots are tense spaces and not the type of place where you stick around; normally you just park your car and go. In the movies it’s a place where something’s about to go down. It has a sexy side, but ultimately I wanted people to feel comfortable in a space that’s dirty and not really made for humans.
Scott: Are you mostly drawn to industrial spaces?
NOÉMIE: Some spaces are industrial and some are architecturally striking. Frank Gehry’s architecture is very spectacular. Usually I’m not drawn to spectacular spaces because I feel like these types of spaces are already expressing something. When I saw the Gehry building that we used for our performance, “Rapture,” I immediately felt as though it wanted bodies sliding down it. Really I just try to reinvent the meaning of a space or at least show it in a different way.
Scott: How much of your performances involve audience participation?
NOÉMIE: The audience should have a visual experience, but I also want them involved in the show physically. With my show, “Descent,” which took place on a beautiful stairwell designed by Stanford White, in the New York City Court Building Clock Tower, the audience played a major role. The stairwell was designed without columns, so there was a big hole in the middle. The audience was able to stand at the top and look down to see the dancers on each floor, and this created a symmetry that made the repetition of the architecture really come alive. As the show went on, the audience kept moving down floors, so at certain points dancers were above and below them. This enabled multiple shows to go on at once and gave each person a unique experience. Lately, I’ve been trying to expand upon that.
Scott: In what ways?
NOÉMIE: I did a show where the audience purchased either a viewer ticket or a player ticket. If you bought a player ticket, you got an email with instructions that assigned you a team, gave you a mission and told you what you needed to do at the show. You had to give your cell phone number and bring a prop and during the performance you got a text message telling you when to act. I’m trying to incorporate more of this type of audience participation in my future shows.
Scott: Does New York play a role in your performances?
NOÉMIE: New York has a lot of diversity. It’s challenging to live and work here because everybody “gets it.” As an artist you get the benefit of that but it also creates a lot of competition that in the end creates better work. In Bushwick there are really creative people doing exciting things that are a lot more experimental than Manhattan, which is mainstream but also international. In Brooklyn people are much more likely to go off the beaten path and see something more innovative. In Manhattan the shows cater to an aesthetic and the idea of being at the top of the world. Both are just as incredible.