Dance inaugurates Faena Forum

Dancers in Pam Tanowitz’ “Once With Me, Once Without Me” at the Faena Forum on Monday night
Dancers in Pam Tanowitz’ “Once With Me, Once Without Me” at the Faena Forum on Monday night David X Prutting/BFA.com

For the inauguration of a very solid building, "Once With Me, Once Without Me," the collaborative dance performance (or time-based performative expression, in current art world jargon) which baptized the Faena Forum on Monday night at the beginning of Art Week, was fleeting stuff. The piece, by choreographer Pam Tanowitz and several collaborators, was the centerpiece of an elaborate event to unveil starchitect Rem Koolhaas and partner Shohei Shigematsu/OMA's multi-faceted structure, the cultural center for the billionaire's row that is the Faena District Miami Beach.

An old-fashioned term for this kind of thing is "pièce d'occasion." There was an exclusive reception and ribbon-cutting ceremony beforehand, and a party afterwards. Ximena Caminos, the Forum's executive director, called the performance "an architectural striptease" - an unveiling meant to make people think about the aesthetic and architectural qualities of the space.

Attendees filed up white spiraling staircases into the Forum's vast, columnar white central assembly hall, with a soaring domed ceiling topped by a clear oculus. The space feels both invigoratingly open, and with its smooth expanses of sci-fi lab/pristine gallery white, sterile. If you looked up, you saw backlit dancers in the window-like openings circling the top of the dome, an intriguing sight soon replaced by watchers. The dancing took place on white platforms designed by Shigematsu/OMA, which formed a circle, intersected by angular cutouts. The audience stood around the perimeter and sat inside those cutout spaces; silhouetted against or rising above the sleek white surfaces, they became, in a way, part of the set.

Tanowitz used six dancers from her own company, and 20 advanced students from the Miami City Ballet school. Her movement looks similar in many ways to that of Merce Cunningham, the definitive post-modernist: angular, geometric, stark, the dancers' limbs forming long lines and their movement sharply cutting through and defining the space around them. But her choreography is less quirky and individuated than I remember Cunningham's. The dancers moved faster or slower (with frequent stillnesses), but otherwise maintained an even sameness of quality. Within those parameters, the dancers were excellent; those from Tanowitz' company were commanding, dominating even that vast space, while the students were arrestingly focused and earnest.

The other visual elements were also strikingly graphic. The costumes by Sybilla, drapey red dresses, black unitards with beige, body-defining stripes, a few in stand-out colors (a pink dress for one magnificent woman, an orange one for a striking MCB student.) Davison Scandrett's marvelous lighting design, meant to mimic the way changing outdoor light shines through the geometric cut-outs on the Forum's exterior, set a white kaleidoscope of polygons and angular shapes drifting around the walls, even as the overall light changed from pearly to bright to shadowed, as if moving from dawn to noon to evening. The effect was dreamlike. Dan Siegler's score, which he led on piano with a violinist and trumpet player, was sparse and quietly dramatic, now piercing, now elegaic.

So there were many beautifully made parts to the performance. Whether they came together into something more, however, is another question. The vast openness of the central area is exhilarating and a bit overwhelming, its circularity and height have their own sense of motion. But the dancing, for all its exquisitely constructed architecture (and the fun of seeing magnificent movers close up), didn't seem to respond to or illuminate those qualities. There were compelling moments - the tall woman in pink in a vivid solo; one of the young women students, in red, striding alone across the platform, briefly centering the whole enormous room on her valiantly forthright body. But this was not a dance that swept you up with a broader power.

About two-thirds of the way through, part of the wall separated into tall panels, sliding aside to reveal another enormous, square-shaped room, with a glass wall at the opposite end. The moment was a dramatic one. The choreography, however, didn't respond convincingly to this change, and so the audience was left uncertain about where to look or go. They drifted over as the dancers performed on smaller platforms in the new space; many people chatting and ignoring the action altogether. The result was that the ending felt hazy, and, in a way, disrespectful to the artists and the more profound intention of bringing the space alive; a mushy transition from high concept performance to cocktail party.