The electronic music artist Four Tet’s performance at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust last year.

Jordan Rathkopf/Courtesy National Sawdust

In New York City, the Rules Of Performance Are Being Dramatically Rewritten

It’s music! No, It’s dance! No, it’s...something else entirely.

Around the time a flock of sheep ambled out into the Park Avenue Armory’s great vaulted Drill Hall in the middle of what might loosely be called an opera––or maybe it was when a quartet of zeppelins hovered over the stage––I realized that the performing arts in New York had taken a startling turn. That 2016 production of Louis Andriessen’s hectic and periodically mystifying opera (if that’s the word) De Materie made it clear that the mainstream and the margins had merged. Performances that would once have been grouped under the catchall rubric experimental––borrowing from (and exploding) various genres in service of a can’t-miss moment––have become a new standard in today’s “experience economy,” infiltrating major arts organizations and leading to the creation of new ones. I’ve lost track of the cross-genre, multimedia fusions of music, art, video, and theater I’ve attended in recent years, many of them huge, technically sophisticated, and moving. 

The Shed’s artistic director, Alex Poots. The institution’s distinctive structure features a translucent shell that can be rolled out to reveal a uniquely variable arrangement of stages.

Nicholas Calcott

The new emblem of New York’s performance rethink is the Shed, an outpost of deliberate unpredictability in the colossal new corporate neighborhood Hudson Yards. The building itself, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the Rockwell Group, performs a kind of slow-motion public dance. At rest, the inner structure sits beneath a quilt of a translucent plastic like a mantle of bubble wrap mounted on a steel frame. Beneath that is a glass box full of art spaces, a rearrangeable Rubik’s Cube of galleries, dance studios, theaters, and concert halls. At the touch of a button, the outer shell trundles out on gargantuan wheels to enclose a section of plaza large enough for a festival stage. The artistic director of this cultural Rube Goldberg device is Alex Poots, who is determined to make the building a giant playground for artists, both established and new. 

“I wouldn’t want the Shed to be typecast as some kind of trendy interdisciplinary place,” Poots says. “We bring parity across art forms. If a painter wants to paint, that’s great. But because here none of the forms is a poor relation––because we’re not a performing arts center with a little gallery, or a museum with a concert series––we can follow what artists want to do in a way that’s not possible in other places.” 

"The Let Go", a performance at the Park Avenue Armory conceived by multidisciplinary artist Nick Cave.

James Ewing/Park Avenue Armory

Poots comes from a cohort of arts administrators as restlessly creative as the artists and audiences they serve. For years, presenters of traditional dance, classical music, drama, and opera have been fretting over the ebbing of their audience base. Diehard (but die-eventually) subscribers are being replaced by a generation unused to loyalty and often untrained in the fine points of each genre. As the old subscriber model breaks down, performing arts institutions are competing for fickle and choosy cultural consumers who call the babysitter first and buy tickets later. Seducing those audiences is difficult and expensive, especially when they can immerse themselves in unorthodox, ambitious programming just by firing up their tablets and watching Game of Thrones or, if time is tight, the music video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” More importantly, artists, who come from all over the world and have wildly disparate cultural backgrounds, are often even more impatient with outdated pressures and constraints. 

Poots recounts that some years ago he wondered aloud to a fellow arts guru whether the German painter Gerhard Richter was attuned to the contemporary composers Steve Reich, an American minimalist, and Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer of slow-moving mystical meditations. “Richter said, ‘Sometimes I paint to music’! It turned out that next to his CD player were albums by both Reich and Pärt.” That intuition, that a collection of disparate creators might share a similar sensibility, led to the Shed’s inaugural art-and-music commission, “Reich Richter Pärt,” which weaves together new works by all three.

Before launching the Shed, Poots was briefly artistic director of the Armory, the youthful organization headquartered in a decommissioned military building. Erected in 1881 by New York’s aristocratic Seventh Regiment, the Armory is a masterpiece of martial opulence. Lavishly decorated rooms, perfect for small recitals, contrast with the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall, the kind of space where you could comfortably stage a tank battle. 

R&B singer Abra performs in a temporary structure in last year’s “A Prelude to the Shed.”

Stephanie Berger/Courtesy The Shed

Given such a vast canvas, artists of many different disciplines have let the space guide their imaginations. Last fall, the South African artist and director William Kentridge staged The Head and the Load, a tragic and fiercely surreal spectacle about the tragic and fiercely surreal experiences of African porters during World War I. Kentridge (and an enormous cast) told the story in a collage of African and European languages, Dada gibberish, new and old music, shadow puppets, monologues, dance, and charcoal drawings that formed, dissolved, and marched across an extralong screen. It was hard to imagine seeing it anywhere else.

Related: These African Female Artists Are Hitting the International Stage

It’s not easy to win an audience’s trust and keep challenging it at the same time; consistency and surprise tend to work in opposition. But even as New York’s major institutions roam into new territory, the city has proven able to absorb ever more hours of live performance in ever more audacious forms. It turns out that new organizations don’t cannibalize one another’s audiences or donor base, so long as they offer something genuinely new. 

The Shed and the Armory could confine themselves to importing prepackaged extravaganzas from countries where governments fund theater, opera, and dance. But both institutions have concluded that in order to maximize their impact they need to commission and produce new work. Asking artists to range as widely in practice as they do in their minds requires contacts, money, judgment, and real estate. Poots and his counterpart at the Armory, Rebecca Robertson, control enough choice square footage to remove obstacles and smooth the way. You want to replicate the seating in Berlin’s philharmonic hall? Consider it done (at the Shed). A pianist wants to perform on pianos that float on rising waters? The Armory can do that. Dancers need to levitate three stories above the audience? No problem (for the Shed’s Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, coming this summer).

The Damned, director Ivo Van Hove’s staged adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film, at the Park Avenue Armory.

Stephanie Berger/Courtesy Park Avenue Armory

That deluxe flexibility and scale allow these venues to lure marquee names. The Shed’s first round of spectacles includes a monthlong run of Cornucopia, an elaborately theatrical concert by Björk, who slips back and forth between the pop and avant-garde music worlds with practiced nonchalance. And the Armory landed the limited U.S. run of The Lehman Trilogy, Stefano Massini’s three-hour, much-lauded parable about capitalism’s excesses, directed by Sam Mendes. That is unambiguously a play, but three generations of the same family’s plot unfold within a revolving glass box, the kind of set that works magic in the middle of a vast, dark space. 

The arts in New York have long been segmented by genre, audience, and real estate. Symphony orchestras play symphonies in symphony halls, museums keep their galleries quiet and the paintings still, and theater takes place pretty much exclusively in theaters. But an undercurrent of rebellion runs through the city’s cultural history too. Starting in the 1970s, artists of indeterminate genre converged on the Kitchen, a nonprofit space in then-scruffy, now ultrachic Chelsea. Around that time, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was gathering its own stable of innovators, including the director Robert Wilson and the composer Philip Glass, whose 1976 collaboration Einstein on the Beach remains the apotheosis of What-do-youcall-that? performances. 

“Solid Light Works,” at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn.

Courtesy Pioneer Works

Four decades later, the antiestablishment spirit remains robust at venues like Brooklyn’s Roulette, which stages the Mixology Festival, an assault on category and convention––even conventions it helped create. One vintage moment came in February, with Jon Satrom’s multimedia work Prepared Desktop, in which everything that has ever gone kablooey on your laptop––spinning wheels, mysterious error messages, eternal downloads, and runaway windows––exploded on a screen to a soundtrack of scratches, glitches, and hums. 

New York’s broad, well-funded cultural apparatus doesn’t push back or ignore the fringes anymore but goes snuffling around for ideas there instead. Last summer, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, led by the voraciously curious Jane Moss, ventured far from both Lincoln Center and Mozart to stage Ashley Fure’s 2017 immersive composition The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects in Brooklyn. Audience members stood in a room hung with paper curtains, and subwoofers murmured below the audible range, transmitting vibrations to the sheets. The paper quivered like leaves in the breeze, as if the whispering woods had come indoors. A few months later, the New York Philharmonic, under vigorous new management, welcomed its new music director Jaap van Zweden with the world premiere of Filament, another all-around work by Fure. A choir that was scattered through the balconies whispered into specially designed megaphones that looked like high-tech conch shells. 

Gabriel Florenz, artistic director of Pioneer Works.

Nicholas Calcott

While some presenting organizations go hunting for special spaces, museums have started to smuggle one-shot performances into galleries, atria, and period rooms where silence usually reigns. The stone vaults of the Cloisters’ 12th-century Romanesque chapel make the perfect resonating chamber for meditative, otherworldly music from just about any period. One startling name on last winter’s schedule was the leather-clad goth male soprano M. Lamar, who gave a single performance of his poly-stylistic song cycle Lordship and Bondage: The Birth of the Negro Superman. In 2017, the Guggenheim Museum, which has a long tradition of hosting workshops and performances in a variety of genres, installed the pop star Solange Knowles in the rotunda at the base of its famous spiral ramp for a one-time-only nondenominational ritual called An Ode To. 

Since “whatchamacallit” is not a viable marketing category, opera has become an umbrella term for any kind of musical spectacle that doesn’t fit in a labeled box. Sometimes the venue is the city itself. Last fall, the architect Elizabeth Diller and composer David Lang produced The Mile-Long Opera, in which audience members strolled on the High Line as hundreds of performers, spread out along the length of the elevated park, whispered, declaimed, and sang vignettes drawn from city life. 

What all these experiences have in common is the feeling that context shapes content. At Pioneer Works, a vast Brooklyn nonprofit art space established in 2012 by the artist Dustin Yellin, art and music often engage in an unexpected relationship. Early last year, the venue’s artistic director Gabriel Florenz mounted an exhibition of Anthony McCall’s immense luminescent cones called “Solid Light Works.” Then Pioneer Works organized four performances of “Four Simultaneous Soloists,” in which musicians who had never worked together––a turntable DJ, an electric guitarist, a vibraphonist, and on one occasion a singer––huddled with audience members inside the cones of light and performed intimate improvisations. 

“We like to think about the difference between doing a performance on a stage and doing it inside an exhibition,” Florenz says. “That’s when it makes sense, when it’s not just one thing, when you can get people participating. We’re a museum of process.” 

The composer Paola Prestini, artistic director of National Sawdust.

Nicholas Calcott

It’s great for certified geniuses like Kentridge, Björk, Richter, Mendes, and McCall when venues adapt to them instead of demanding the reverse, but New York’s culture of openness also helps younger artists develop their valuable idiosyncrasies. Nearly 1,000 early-career artists in a variety of genres responded to the Shed’s first open call; 52 will have their work paid for, produced, and presented––not in some black-box theater tucked beneath the roof, but in the venue’s primary spaces. National Sawdust, a tiny, faceted modern jewel casket of a concert hall inserted in the shell of a former sawdust factory in Brooklyn, puts on roughly 250 concerts a year by a bewildering roster of musicians in a quickly evolving set of hybrid genres. It is also a full-service organization for bringing music into the world––“from incubation to dissemination,” as its artistic director, the composer Paola Prestini, puts it. It’s a start-up serving those who are starting out.

Although it’s run by and for young people, National Sawdust has a powerful group of elders watching over it, including Philip Glass. When the director R. B. Schlather staged Glass’s 1979 Madrigal Opera (that term again!), he placed a Webcam on the roof to stream the blood-orange sunset, projecting it live on the auditorium’s white walls. As the chorus, embedded among the audience, sang Glass’s glinting, antique harmonies, the light in the room faded to black, a silent echo of the city itself seeping into the hall.