Dancing in The Street: ‘Mr. Clean sure is flexible!’

Paul-Andre Fortier performs. (Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford.)
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Yesterday, two young men, business types, were walking to lunch in the Financial District when something caught their eye.

"Mr. Clean's pretty flexible," one said to the other, laughing. He was referring to Paul-Andre Fortier, a 62-year-old dancer and choreographer from Canada who does bear a striking, if leaner, resemblance to the bald, blue-eyed, white-eyebrowed housewife-bait.

A lot of finance guys have been seeing a lot of Fortier this month. Each day, for 30 days (until August 14), at the stroke of noon, he dances for almost exactly thirty minutes in front of a crowd of tourists, office workers, and passersby within a large square taped out on the plaza at the corner of Water and Broad Streets, a piece called "Solo 30 X 30" that is being presented as part of the River to River Festival. To New York's cultural consumers, the marathon may be the perfect chaser to a spring spent sitting across from Marina Abramovic.

"I take it in three sets of sets of 10," Fortier said, wiping his face with a towel after the sixth performance last week, "because that's manageable. Thirty is too big. When you dance onstage, you know how to project. In a black box, for instance. Here the box is so big. So where do you start? How do you adjust your dance to the buildings, to the size of the plaza? This is for the performer such a wonderful challenge."

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The dance itself is largely abstract, clearly influenced by the abrupt, geometric movements of Merce Cunningham, but with a New Age, sun-salutations-y vibe in place of Cunningham's astringency. There are graceful Fred Astaire-like riffs, and even moments--appropriate in the open-air context--when Fortier lowers himself to the ground in slow motion, like the prologue to a break-dancing routine. He makes eye contact with the audience and, at key intervals, holds up his hand, walking to each side of the square in a silent, surprisingly moving salute.

"It's a piece about reconciliation," he said. "This man is trying to find his place in humanity. He's alone and he's fighting all these demons, and at the end, when he listens to the ground and what is going on underneath--he does that at the beginning and he does it at the end--acknowledges that they're always going to be there. It's about finding a way to live with the demons and with the buildings."

The performance is being presented by River to River in conjunction with the Joyce Theater and Arts Brookfield Properties. When Fortier visited the city in March, the Joyce and Brookfield first brought him to the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, but Fortier insists on performing the piece outside, so the space in front of One New York Plaza, another Brookfield property and the southernmost skyscraper in Manhattan, was chosen. "They took me here," he said, "and I was seduced immediately."

It's a seductive site, and a dramatic one, with the brutalist One New York Plaza rising fifty stories on one side and, across the street, a jumble of colonial-era buildings in front of a dizzyingly steep set of overlapping skyscrapers.

"It's a backdrop that you cannot even think of onstage," Fortier said, gazing upward. "So I have that. I have the two rivers. And hiding spectators." He pointed at the surrounding office buildings. "All the black windows. We don't see through but they see through. So I'm surrounded by people who watch, and I don't know they're watching."

The faint outlines of workers on their lunch breaks were in fact visible if you stared really hard. It was a slightly paranoid sensation, heightened by the car horns and sirens of the busy intersection. New York is the twelfth city Fortier has performed the piece, which he premiered in 2006, but it's far from the most peaceful.

"I'm dancing in silence, to the natural score of the city," he said. "I've been in cities where we could hear the water running under the bridge, we could hear the birds. Here it's so dense, with the sirens and the helipcopters and the work and the streets and so on and so on, and so soundwise it's extremely busy. With the streets and the buses and the taxis and the workmen coming out of the office for lunch, there's a lot of traffic. So what is difficult for me is just to keep focus and not pay attention. I see everything, but I choose not to pay attention. I don't allow it to disturb me from my task."

Fortier is nearing his 365th performance of the work--a milestone he'll reach in Belgium in September--and after a potential stop in Yokohama, Japan, and then a fifteenth city, he plans to stop performing it. But not, perhaps, to retire it entirely.

"I think I'll pass it to younger dancers," he said. "Next June in Montreal, I'm doing workshop on the solo. I will see how it works, if it is feasible to pass it on. It demands a lot of strength--physically, emotionally. To face an audience, to face different situations for thirty days, is very demanding, it's very exhausting. You have to have the determination, a very strong belief in what you do. You have to have the passion."

While many people merely glance at Fortier as they walk by, it's the kind of performance that affects some people viscerally. While we spoke, a woman came up and gushed about how peaceful the dance was, how centered she felt. Fortier said that in France, a man wrote to him that he'd wept after seeing the piece, returning for twenty days. The dancer thinks that in New York, he's helped by his similarity to many of the workers. In white top and black pants, with suspenders under the top, he's even dressed as an abstraction of a businessman.

"The aim is to bring a piece of choreography to people who are not necessarily going out to see dance," he said. "So now they've seen a man dancing. And I'm a man. If I were a woman, a young woman, it would be totally different. If I were a young male dancer, it would be totally different. I'm a man. I'm sixty-two. I have grey hair. I'm a man dancing. So they take it more seriously, and then stop and watch for a while. And then I see some head nodding. When I see an emotion in the eyes and in the face of anybody, I've done my task, I can sleep, I'm okay."