Some day, perhaps, coffeehouses and boutiques will mushroom on the corner of Halladay Street and Johnston Avenue in Jersey City. But for now, this stop on the JC Studio Tour is still just an “arts district” in embryo, a cheap place where artists who don’t mind getting their hands dirty can forge a reputation as community builders. Down the street from the corner bodega, and surrounded by modest homes, is the old metal-working factory where visual artist Elaine Hansen has installed a gallery and recording studio. On Sunday, the dance company SHUA Group performed there, offering the premiere of an intriguing piece called “Steel Meeting” in the factory’s rear sheds.
Those abandoned spaces have broken floors and pieces of equipment — whatever it seemed useless to strip and cart away — bolted to the walls or attached to rails in the ceiling. Most dancers would recoil if asked to perform here, but this is just the way choreographer Joshua Bisset likes it.
Herded into the dark space, the audience breathes the dust of history. Then, once our eyes have become accustomed to the gloom, Bisset animates the mysterious residue of this place. He materializes among us like a ghost, a hooded figure with hands raised and pressing against the wall. Then silently he leads us into a larger room where two other dancers join him. With hand-held lamps, they illuminate details of our surroundings: a grill embedded in the floor; a patchwork of stains; an old pencil-sharpener that squeaks like a family of mice; and a startled woman whose elegant clothes remind us we are at a show.
Then the music starts. Nesting atop a concrete bunker, composer Stéphane Garin plays a collection of junk, flailing and tinkering to produce his beat-up score, while Sam Sowyrda bangs an answer from another perch high on the wall. Now the three red-hooded dancers roll on the floor, and spin low to the ground. As the dance progresses, Bisset shouts instructions — “P1! P5!” — and Laura Quattrocchi opens and slams a door.
When Tsveta Kassabova tosses a rope over a beam, Bisset yells for someone to help her, but no one in the audience volunteers. While “Steel Meeting” recreates the noise and physical activity of a factory, echoing the building’s former life in a fanciful way, its demands are not so urgent that viewers feel compelled to join in.
The finale is a coup de théâtre as, without our realizing it, Bisset floods the space behind us. Returning to the room through which we entered, we find it impassable. The dancers take advantage of the darkness to remove their work-clothes and slowly wade into the Stygian pool. After a life of toil, death enfolds their glistening bodies in rapture.
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