Splash Dance: Brooklyn’s McCarren Park Pool becomes a stage


By Scott Harrah

When choreographer Noémie Lafrance spotted Brooklyn’s abandoned McCarren Park swimming pool in 1996, she immediately fell in love with the dilapidated structure. The pool, built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project, was filled with weeds and graffiti and was an eyesore to many locals. But Lafrance looked beyond what most saw and was instantly intrigued with the porthole-like lights for night swimming, the raised platforms, the Art Deco-era architecture, and the sheer grandness of 50,000 square feet of space. To Lafrance—a woman who’s renowned in the dance world for site-specific installations—the pool seemed like an outdoor Greek theater, and she vowed to stage a performance there one day.

Almost a decade later, the 31-year-old French Canadian’s wish has finally come true. It’s been a long but rewarding journey. After a year of raising funds, six months of negotiating with the Parks Commission and the City Parks Foundation, hiring a contractor to do numerous repairs, and dealing with city bureaucracy to get permission to use a space that was closed in 1984, Lafrance’s determination has more than paid off with the opening of her latest opus. Her lush and visually gorgeous Agora truly made waves at the McCarren Park Pool on September 13 amid much fanfare, complete with more than 30 dancers and a ribbon-cutting ceremony by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

In a phone interview the morning after the show’s opening, Lafrance, sounding a bit exhausted, was pleased that her vision had finally come to fruition. She said that some of her dancers began rehearsals in a gym way back in January, but most of the dances were mapped out at McCarren Park Pool in July. She had no problem choreographing the movements on concrete, because she’s done all of her greatest works in unorthodox spaces. Lafrance and her nonprofit dance organization SENS have been wowing dance fans since 2000 by staging performances in such odd places as an East Village parking garage, the staircase of the City Court Building’s clock tower, and in the tunnels of an old fort in Newport, RI. She said she plans to do future performances in the subway, on a beach and on a crane. Her incredibly creative, difficult and aesthetically brilliant choreography has earned her two Bessie Awards, numerous federal grants in both the US and Canada, and made her the toast of the New York dance world. Now, wherever Lafrance mounts a production, crowds and the media come to watch in droves, and Agora is no exception. It will definitely find a place on everyone’s “best of dance” list for 2005, right alongside prestigious ballet companies and one of her mentors, Martha Graham. (Lafrance came to New York in 1994 after receiving a scholarship from the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.)

Agora’s main theme is urban life in New York.

“It’s about the excitement and fear of what it means to live with so many people,” she said.

When the project was initially conceived, Lafrance wanted to portray agoraphobia, the fear of public spaces. She soon also incorporated the various meanings of the ancient Greek word “agora,” which is defined as “a marketplace, the center of town, an open place of gathering.” She said she wanted to show how people in cities “mingle and talk and get together, and so in a sense everything becomes a pool of ideas.” To Lafrance, the McCarren Park Pool was a great canvas on which she could paint a portrait of the city and reconstruct all the craziness and vitality of what goes on during a typical day in New York.

The opening of Agora begins at sunset amidst the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, as the dancers come to life in the dark pool. As ambient music and the sounds of crickets and croaking frogs fill the pool, various colorful characters emerge. Dancers start walking on imaginary tightropes on one side of the pool, while a man in another part sits in a chair watching TV. As one man slams wooden boards on the ground, a woman in a striped dress and a huge hat covers her face and starts slinking around. An Asian man with a paddle pretends to kayak through the waterless space. Men fill an inflatable wading pool with water and begin swimming in it. Women in colorful 1950s-style bathing caps and sequined costumes jump onto one of the raised platforms and begin dancing. Ominous-looking men in suits walk around as if they’re in a funeral procession, then hop up onto the platform to dance. A woman jumps around shouting out “I love you” to various audience members, and dancer pushes a shopping cart adorned with Christmas lights and a boom box on top. Some dancers fight. Another woman in a red dress, in a clever parody of a celebrity, dances around as the train on her gown unfurls into a huge Hollywood-style red carpet. Each dance sequence is offbeat yet beautifully executed, and wonderfully entertaining.

This may appear slightly bizarre at first, and one may initially think this is simply performance art disguised as dance, the type of “shotgun surrealism” that was so prevalent back in the 1980s East Village downtown scene. However, the moment one studies the dancers’ complicated, seamless movements—whose elements include everything from classic ballet to Fosse-style Broadway—one truly understands Lafrance’s gift as a choreographer and her originality. The quirky vignettes that the audiences sees soon become less confusing as we realize the dancers are merely acting out scenes from city life, from the ordinary to the outrageous. Much of the featured music is classic pop, from Stevie Wonder to the Manhattan Transfer, all artists that Lafrance has been inspired by throughout various stages of her life. Using well-known songs was a smart move because they were familiar and seemed to relax the audience, as everyone sat wondering what whimsical treat Lafrance had in store next.

If you decide to make the journey to catch Agora on one of these remaining warm evenings, there are two ticket options: “Anchored” (seated), with one seat of your choice, or “Floating” (standing), with the option to change positions during the performance and see the various happenings in the pool. It really doesn’t matter where you sit, however. Agora is a visual masterpiece from any viewing point.