EDITORS NOTE - Choreographer Noemie Lafrance uses garages, stairwells and other public spaces for her dances. An Associated Press Writer spent a year with Lafrance, reporting on how she created her latest work - in an empty swimming pool.
NEW YORK - Men and women in sneakers, cutoff sweats and inside-out shirts cluster on cracked cement, surrounded by swirls of graffiti. They look like a hip, mixed-gender version of the Lost Boys, not dancers nearing the end of a yearlong journey.
Their Peter Pan is choreographer Noemie Lafrance, Brooklyn's abandoned McCarren Pool her never-never land. Hot August sun glints off the puckish 31-year-old's pink Converse high-tops as she directs through a megaphone, flipping a packet of diagrams resembling architectural floor plans.
With dozens of props and costumes, multichannel sound and a "stage" originally built for 6,800 swimmers, "Agora" (Greek for marketplace) is a monstrous undertaking.
The Quebec-born Lafrance has coveted the 50,000 square-foot pool, which closed in 1983, since stumbling on it in 1996. It took more than a year to work her way through a maze of city agencies, contractors, politicians and architects to realize her $500,000 dance project.
As a "site-specific" choreographer who creates works for public spaces, Lafrance is following in big footsteps, including those of Trisha Brown and Meredith Monk. And at a time when many see New York's dance scene adrift, with bastions such as the Joyce Theater offering uninspired programming, Lafrance's works generate excitement.
Critics debate her merits as a choreographer, with some finding her organizing skills more potent than her ability to craft dances. Some, like 2002's "Descent," set in a courthouse clock tower staircase, are magical. Others, like "Noir," a 2004 work in a parking garage, don't live up to their spaces.
"Agora," LaFrance says, speaks to "your fantasies and urgencies and adventure and community and the public space." But, more than anything else: "It's an experience of that space."
Creating any artwork can be a long, sometimes arduous journey. For LaFrance, it officially begins in October 2004, when she holds auditions at City Center.
"This is a piece about agoraphobia" - the fear of being in open spaces, she explains. The stuffy studio is crammed with dozens of dancers, almost all women. Each has just seconds to perform.
Dancers run to the middle of the floor, fall and race off. Some windmill their arms; others clutch the wall before darting across the scuffed floor. Most of the men make it; many of the women do not. A second audition will decide the final selection - about 30 dancers.
By January 2005, rehearsals begin in LaFrance's Brooklyn studio.
Will Rawls swoops and bends across the wood floor. Almost too big for the space, his tall, sculpted frame dwarfs Lafrance as she demonstrates a lush move. Unlike recent works, she uses her own body to create moves and then teaches them, instead of having her dancers improvise or creating within a conceptual framework. She will also perform in "Agora," dancing a duet and solo.
"You don't have to be super-sized about it. It's more of the sensation of going there," she says in her soft French accent, as Rawls executes a full turn.
The choreographer shuns dancerly movement in favor of naturalism. She wants her works to maintain the integrity of the spaces they inhabit.
"She's exploring her body in ways that she hasn't before, so there's no methodology yet," Rawls says after the rehearsal. "I'm very intrigued and curious and at times confused - but liking it."
The vast McCarren Pool swallows Lafrance and six principal dancers: They tease and link arms like old friends, exploring a world littered with broken beer bottles, weeds and empty aerosol paint cans.
"I want to keep that nice feeling of emptiness. I don't want the feeling of it being all dressed up," Lafrance says, as she begins her first onsite rehearsals in May. Still, she urges bigger movements as she alternates between dancing and observing.
"Think like you're popcorn," she yells across the cavernous space as dancers jump into the air in disjointed bursts.
By August, construction crews are hard at work, cleaning up the pool for September's debut.
"It's slowly becoming sanitized and accessible," dancer Lily Baldwin says. "I feel a little loss, but it's also exciting." She and dancer Reba Mehan, stretch on the pool's concrete lip, where audience members will sit.
A few weeks later, the company has a feverish week of technical rehearsals - lights, props, costumes - before the work's debut. "Agora" continues to evolve, with passages cut and dancers shuffled.
Opening night, Sept. 13.
It's muggy, hot. Exhausted dancers gather in a small tent for last-minute notes. After rehearsing until 1 a.m., they're "running on adrenaline."
Lafrance, headset in place, will not dance tonight: There is too much to oversee, starting with a ribbon-cutting ceremony - yellow caution tape, actually, strung up in the pool's center.
As the day's light fades from dusty pink to blue, the pool lights rise, and then dim. A jet roars overhead, blending into Brooks Williams' layered, electronic score of subway noises, animal calls and various songs.
One by one the dancers emerge, skimming the cracked surface like water bugs, creating their own ripples.
"Agora" runs through Oct. 1.
On the Net:
Sens Production: www.sensproduction.org