The “Soul Train” line appeared out of nowhere, fully formed, like it was meant to be. At the Park Avenue Armory on Wednesday night, dozens of dancers paired off to spin and bounce, sashaying between 40-foot-high glittering curtains.
In another corner of the room, a giant game of Twister occupied hands and feet; then a line dance, with pivots and hip bumps, broke out.
The curtain, made of multicolored Mylar strands — disco streamers — curved through the space, creating pockets for solos on what seemed like the city’s largest dance floor. This was “The Let Go,” and it was rallying New Yorkers toward playful, sweaty abandon.
Just an hour earlier, the crowd had been seated, quietly taking in “Up Right,” a costumed performance backed by a choir, that deals with police brutality, gun violence, racial inequality and identity. At least two audience members had been moved to tears. Now they were rushing through the strands of the curtain, shimmying their butts off. “Get in here!” one yelled to me, giddy.
Both “Upright” and “The Let Go” are the creation of Nick Cave, the Chicago artist best known for his “Soundsuits,” costume-like sculptures that make noise as they move. What connects the projects — aside from their raucous, rainbow-hued color palette — is a sense of transformation. “Up Right,” a signature Cave work making its New York premiere at the Armory, features dancers who slowly metamorphose into 10-foot-tall shamanesque creatures as they don their rustling Soundsuits and stomp around. “The Let Go,” a work commissioned by the Armory, encourages any visitor to have that same wild, unencumbered energy.
“It’s definitely pushing you toward freedom,” said Jinah Parker, a dancer, choreographer and playwright, who came to the preview performances Wednesday.
Cave, 59, who trained at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before becoming a visual artist, was inspired by his own disco days, which propelled him through college and graduate school. “I would go into the club, and I would just work it out on the dance floor,” he said. “I wouldn’t talk to anyone, and I would dance for about three hours.”
“That was very safe for me,” he added. “It was this place of refuge.”
At this anxious, divided moment in our country, Cave said, we all need a place to lose ourselves and unfurl. When conceiving “The Let Go,” he envisioned a connection among the Armory’s vast historic drill hall, dance halls and town hall meetings where Americans’ political rifts have been laid bare.
For Cave, movement is a way to bridge our cultural divide. He has invited more than 90 community groups to “activate” the space each day, from the Hoop Movement, which teaches hula hooping, to the Lower East Side Girls Club and Habitat for Humanity. “Up Right” is performed Wednesdays to Fridays; afterward, and on weekends, ticket-holders can show up and dance — or just observe. DJs, including the downtown stalwarts JD Samson, Johnny Dynell and Ana Matronic, will spin live, and a fashion-centric “Freedom Ball,” celebrating house music and ball culture, is planned for June 14. (The installation and events run through July 1.)
Neil Totton, a dancer and performance artist, is a leader of the African Dance Lab, one of the community groups, and part of both “Up Right” and “The Let Go.” He’s tasked with engaging visitors in “The Let Go,” pulling them into motion, teaching them the line dance that was created for the piece.
“Empowerment” is the word that performers have been using to describe their take on the project, and what they want to convey to the audience, Totton said. In an onslaught of negativity, “you have two choices,” he said. You can be discouraged and tormented, “or have the audacity to say, ‘I’m not going to let this break me.'”
In casting the show, Cave and his team, including his special projects director Bob Faust and choreographer and dancer Francesca Harper, looked for artists who had gone through their own make-or-break moment. In the auditions, they asked dancers to reveal a challenging social or emotional experience. Totton, an in-demand fitness trainer, talked about a recent mental breakdown that led him to a hospital stay. In rehearsals, dancers were given flashcards with words like empathy, compassion and connection, to inform their movement.
Putting on one of Cave’s Soundsuits — “I feel like a pop art cartoon come to life,” Totton said, “like a giant Yo Gabba Gabba” — is audacious; moving in it, extending a hand to a stranger to join in, may be more so. (Some of the Soundsuits have silky hair primed for shaking; Totton said he also felt “like the world’s biggest Tina Turner.”)
Cave, a gay artist whose projects have recently become more personal — he also has an exhibition, “Weather or Not,” at Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea this month — can sneak depth into even the most lightweight elements of his work. In “The Let Go,” the colors of the curtain, which he titled “The Chase,” represent gay pride and minorities being chased by police.
Though Harper, the movement director, created the “Let Go” line dance and a few other distinct phrases, she also wanted her dancers to improvise and stay connected to the crowd.
“We want to include all people, even people that are shy,” she said. “I had this woman who was like, ‘I can’t dance, I can’t dance,’ and I said, OK, can you walk with me? We walked around the Chase, and I took her hand, and we were laughing by the end.”
On Wednesday night, well-heeled patrons and young creative types declared themselves dazzled. “We wish all openings were this engaging,” said Juan Hinojosa, a mixed media artist, as the tinsel curtain twirled past him and a friend. “It’s magical.”
At a rehearsal earlier in the week attended by schoolchildren, there were cartwheels and chants of “Rock it out!” A 9-year-old Brooklyn boy named Jayden showed off a fast move he called the Twister, which he created for the room (another was inspired by Fortnite, the video game). “I want a hug!” he called as the Soundsuited performers filed past him.
One of the thrills for Cave is that, in its long run, “The Let Go” can be transformed. It’s an “ongoing sketch,” he said. “Nothing stays the same.”
And don’t be surprised to see him out on the floor, recharging with the crowd. “I will definitely be dancing,” he said. “And it’ll come out of the birth of the project — it’s that ahhh, that sigh of relief. Now I can just sort of let go.”
— Event information:
The Let Go through July 1, Park Avenue Armory; 212- 933-5812 armoryonpark.org
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.