May 22, 2003

Toxic avengers

Red Dive's buoyant theater aims to clean up the Gowanus Canal's sullied reputation

By Annie Bell

It's a sunny afternoon and you're floating down a canal, on a boat gently gliding along smooth waters. Your head nods with the instrumental music, your mind fascinated by the locals' anecdotes, dubbed into the soundtrack, about the once-prosperous waterway. You could be in Paris, Amsterdam, even Venice. Then, you hear one of the raconteurs remark, "If you fell in, you would die, or light up and be very sick," and you're jerked back to reality: You're on the Gowanus Canal.

Not everyone who lives near the historic aqueduct shares such a negative view, though. Red Dive, a collective of dancers and performance artists, has taken to the creek in hopes of revealing its cultural potential to dubious New Yorkers. Their new theatrical boat tour, Peripheral City: Rediscovering the Gowanus Canal, is running Saturday 24 through Monday 26 and again the following weekend, May 31 and June 1. Throughout the 50-minute ride, the audience enjoys specially commissioned music, taped oral histories and landside performances, during which the edifices around the canal become stages.

Among the sideline segments are performance artist Jill Sigman's eerie dance, which plays on the urban legend that the Mafia ditched dead bodies in the channel. Local horn player Daniel Roumain's concert on the 3rd Street Bridge approximates the never-ending honk of car horns and reminds listeners that the increase of truck traffic over the bridge contributed to a decrease in boat traffic on the canal. Dancers along the 9th Street Bridge perform a piece choreographed by Red Dive member Ashley Smith that alludes to the area's seedy nightlife. For a finale, the Gowanus Wildcats—a drill team of 16 preteen girls who live in the nearby low-income housing units—bring it on with cheerleaderesque routines.

The Gowanus's past, of course, is squalid and infamous. Constructed in the 1840s from an existing creek, the canal soon became an industrial hub lined with factories. It spent the next century as Brooklyn's cesspool, and in the 1960s, the flushing system that ostensibly washed pollutants out into Buttermilk Channel broke down. As a result, toxins flourished (along with the jokes about being up shit creek) until the pump was restored in 1999. Since then, marine life and boaters have returned, and the nose-hair-scorching odor has somewhat sweetened. Now, environmentalists, gardeners and developers are all advancing their own visions for the slowly reviving waterway.

"I'm interested in how these needs can coexist," says Peripheral City director Maureen Brennan. Red Dive began flirting with the Gowanus in 1998, when the group was trying to devise a multisite tour of Brooklyn's underbelly. "We were interested in revealing either a lost history or the muted stories inherent to these 'peripheral' areas," Brennan says. "When the Gowanus Canal came up in our brainstorming, the Peripheral City concept immediately crystallized to a boat tour and we got to work."

This type of site-specific, interactive tour is something of a hallmark for Red Dive. In 1998, the group won a Bessie Award for a similar sort of progressive performance in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Inhabited: Afterlives. Both projects reflect the unifying frustration that would become the collective's raison d'être: Traditional art forms and venues limit artists' ability to reach a broad audience. "We wanted multisensory interaction, and we wanted to enliven environments by transforming them into unexpected hosts of artistic experience," Brennan says. "We knew site specific should mean more than presenting a dance in a park or a play in an old warehouse."

Red Dive continues to redefine that concept with Peripheral City. "I am interested in providing audiences with an awe-inspiring experience that ideally will make us all more curious about the other places we walk by every day," Brennan says, "and that will inspire us to personally reexamine or reinvent lost ideas of citizenship and creative investments in our backyards."

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