Stretching Time in River to River’s 20th Season
River to River Festival’s 2021 programming asks audiences to slow down, together.
Okwui Okpokwasili and Emilý Æyer
June 20, 2021
June 26 – 27, 2021
River to River is the only time to catch my artsy friends in FiDi. For the month of June, weirdos in jumpsuits infiltrate banker territory, hungry for public performance. This year’s lineup did not disappoint—tastefully walking the line between celebratory and solemn. Over three weekends in June, Movement Research collaborated with River to River to curate a series of processional performances in Battery Park City. I attended Okwui Okpokwasili and Emilý Æyer’s “Procession,” which proved to be both simple and challenging.
We gather on a park lawn by the water. Near a small tech table and some speakers, Okpokwasili informs us that we would be doing a slow walk to the river. The performance takes place on June 20, and she calls in the history of Juneteenth. As we walk, we are encouraged to remember the eternity that it took for enslaved people in Texas to receive news of their federally recognized freedom, as well as the years Black Americans have waited since then for freedom that has not yet been delivered.
The instructions are deceptively easy. Breathe, shift your weight, lift your foot, slide it forward, place it down, repeat. When you think you’re going as slow as you can, go slower. We file into a flat line with Okpokwasili and Æyer at the center, looking out at the glimmering Hudson. “Walk as slow as the slowest person,” Okpokwasili directs the crowd, “it’s the opposite of how things are in the rest of the world.”
But it doesn’t hold true here either. As we set off tentatively towards the river, I begin to fall behind. The participants next to me step, pause, falter, glance around, and progress forward. I lose track of them as I fall deep into the euphoria of watching the sun set before my eyes. The grass brushes against the ball of my foot as I slide it slower, slower, in front of me.
Slow walking asks you to balance two forces: your personal experience of the walk and the momentum of the group. I began the procession thinking I had mastered the task. It’s like The Fault in Our Stars: every moment contains an infinite number of moments within it. If you try to catch each one, you can spend at least five minutes taking one step.
To my frustration, few other participants seem to care about doing the task correctly. One person near me is preoccupied with showing off their balance, swirling their arms like mock tai-chi. Another ignores the instructions, taking regular steps and pausing in between to keep pace with the group. People move from my peripheral vision into my line of sight as they pass me. My hip muscles start to prickle, but I reassure myself that someone will notice how dutifully slow I am, and feel ashamed that they left me behind.
Smugness turns to heartbreak as the gap between me and the rest of the procession expands: three feet, 10 feet, 40 feet. The photographer and videographer begin to cut in front of me to document the performance, severing my tie to the moving crowd. Æyer and Okpokwasili continue unleashing haunting vocal harmonies as they move out of earshot. The betrayal feels embarrassingly deep. The nature of this exercise is that once someone is far enough behind you, they cease to exist.
In the end, I never make it to the river. I forget when I gave up on re-assimilating. I watch the group move imperceptibly closer to the water until they break into applause. They relax in unison, and I realize that I am the one who failed the exercise. The point was not to slow down; the point was to slow down, together.
By coincidence or, more likely, intentional programming, Maria Hassabi chose to perform a similar task. TOGETHER, which premiered in 2019, brought up the intimacy and loneliness that comes from slowness. Except this time, we all had to watch.
On June 26, the audience sat on a bank plaza, fanning out from a one-meter square piece of flooring. Hassabi and Oisín Monaghan walked in through the crowd 15 minutes after the start time in lockstep. They took their positions on the square, then proceeded to dance around each other, moving as slowly as they physically could. For the next hour, neither dancer made any sudden movements. Their slowness was impeccable and their faces were impenetrable. Even when their cheeks were pressed against each other, they remained stoic. The only sign of effort was the quivering of their shoelaces as their muscles strained to keep still.
The intimacy of the duet recalled trying to extract yourself from someone’s arms after they have fallen asleep: many awkward angles, a lot of slow breathing and stiff muscles. As Maria and Oisín contorted around each other, they seemed to flicker between magnetism and aversion. Their interaction was a series of missed moments: as one person would finally arrive in a position, the other person had already begun to shift.
Although TOGETHER was created before the pandemic, every performance in this era has a whiff of quarantine significance. The sight of two people, confined to one spot, moving through constant tension felt uncomfortably familiar. Slowness, duration, dyed jeans on thin attractive people in public space—these devices have floated around the dance world for decades. The piece itself didn’t try anything radical, but the context breathed in a new relevance. A fitting dance for a time when we crave connection, but also feel the strain of being together.
Neither piece found a cathartic way to emerge from slowness. Witnessing people awkwardly shift out of intense concentration reminded me that our present pandemic transition, from eternal waiting to fast-paced life, does not need to be graceful.