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BY RANIA RICHARDSON | It was a beautiful evening — warm enough to hint that summer is on the way. I had reserved free tickets online for a couple of events at “A Prelude to The Shed,” the public introduction to a performance space that will open next spring as part of the Hudson Yards development on the far west side of Midtown Manhattan.
Exiting Penn Station, I could see booming construction everywhere. Cranes and towers in progress blocked the view of the blue sky. What will the area be like when the buildup is finished? Will it feel energetic and exciting, or cramped and crowded? I walked along W. 31st St. to 10th Ave., and found a corner lot as yet undeveloped, where a smaller, temporary version of The Shed stood, while the real one was under construction — one block away on the High Line.
There was no mistaking this space for anything permanent. From the gravel groundcover to the trailers and tents, the set up was raw and unadorned. Up a few stairs there was a seating area and a shipping container housing a snack bar. A pretentious (albeit mouthwatering) menu included a roast beef sandwich with truffle mushroom aioli, and fruity macarons with cream cheese buttercream. According to a server, this was a representative menu of the one to come.
Tufted, padded benches encircled the mock Shed. A “Prelude Ambassador” stood at the doorway and directed audience members inside, warning us to be careful. I walked through the short tunnel and into the nightmarish scenario of a warm, pitch-black, enclosed space. There was a one-inch slit of light pouring in from the corner but it didn’t help. I heard chanting and running, then singing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. But where were the performers exactly? We, the audience members, kept bumping into each other.
A few minutes later, my eyes had adjusted and I could see at least a dozen black silhouettes of bodies against a dark grey background, dancing freestyle. It was a beautiful sight. I walked the perimeter of the room to get a sense of the whole space, as I had realized that the audience was on the outside and the performers in the middle of the room. More dancing and singing ensued, and what seemed to be an improvisational discussion on the meaning of success.
When I got back to the entrance, something unexpected happened. The performers and others began spinning the wall panels and opening sections to allow the audience members outside. The panels were on wheels, so they moved easily. Like this temporary venue, The Shed will be a flexible space, which will physically transform to support different types of artistic work. It will have a telescoping outer shell.
Very soon a crowd gathered outside, as the same group of performers continued their avant-garde work, “This variation,” by Tino Sehgal. Next up, an MC took over and a DJ rolled out his turntables. The MC, programmer Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray, introduced a series of young dancers competing in the “D.R.E.A.M Ring” dance battles. With eye-popping twists and turns, the participants performed “flexn,” a dance style with roots in Jamaica. One appeared to have no bones in his body, one turned into an alien through facial expressions, and another bent in half backwards. They bested each other individually and then expanded their repertoires in groups. As they sprung and contorted to an enthusiastic crowd, smartphone cameras were out in full force. At times, fans jumped up and down and screamed in approval.
After seeing so much talent, many in the audience were eager to participate in some instruction themselves, stepping to the beat as the dancers demonstrated easy moves. The dance lesson put us in a great mood. Teri-Ann Carryl, a stage manager at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX), told me that she loved the performance. “It recreated the atmosphere of club dancing in an open space and involved an audience that might not experience it otherwise,” she said.
Later, with folding chairs set up and the benches spun inside, the now brightly lit interior space was ready for speakers. Dan Doctoroff, chairman and president of The Shed, explained that the venue needed to be unique and on the leading edge of culture. Besides visual art and performance, it would include other disciplines. To that end, he introduced Kevin Slavin, the organization’s officer of science and technology, who spoke on the makings of healthy environments. He relayed an incident from a few years ago in which bees mistook syrup at a maraschino cherry factory for nectar and produced a gooey red substance instead of honey.
On that note, I exited the space, still listening to Slavin from the outside speakers. I crossed 10th Ave. and ascended the stairs to the High Line, where The Shed, shiny and silver, stood before me, next to Vessel, the steel observation tower that resembles a skeleton. Many structures in the area are spectacular, even as works-in-progress, and tourists were busy taking photos. Like Dumbo in Brooklyn, with such an array of visuals, the area is a big lure for Instagram users who are fans of architecture.
They will have even more to capture next year, indoors and outdoors, with performances and events at The Shed.