On May 20, the 50,000-square-foot Knockdown Center will become the site of a bold new experiment in live performance. Authority Figure, directed by performance/dance/sound artists Monica Mirabile and Sarah Kinlaw, is an immersive and participatory experience exploring themes of surveillance, authority, and obedience. Appropriately vast in scale, it features over 150 performers (including a child and a pregnant woman), and has been created with six choreographers, seven installation artists, and six musicians, including local faves Pictureplane, SOPHIE, and Hot Sugar.
In order to purchase a ticket for Authority Figure, one must obey orders, in the form of a quiz evaluating one’s endurance and willingness, which determines when in the piece’s three-hour runtime they will enter. Once you’re in, you’ll exist in a contradiction, observing the performances while being asked to do certain things and move certain ways, and also having freedom to choose. “The whole thing is choreographed and directed, there’s a framework and format to it that’s intentional. But within this format there’s a lot of room for anything to happen,” says Mirabile. “And that’s where agency comes in. And what you decide can change everything.”
The project’s main rehearsal space is Bushwick’s Otion Front Studio, a small (290 square feet, compared to Knockdown’s 50,000) rehearsal and occasional event space that Monica and Sarah run. To get there, you must descend into a musky basement next to a Family Dollar, walk through a dimly-lit hallway and emerge into a backyard, where a small room lies. Inside, a Friday night rehearsal is underway, led by dancer, choreographer, and musician Richard Kennedy.
The small space is almost otherworldly, illuminated only by lights that constantly shift colors. Though the early May weather is chilly and the air is thick with mist, it’s warm inside and the mirrors are fogged up from the active bodies. Kennedy is leading five dancers through group and solo choreography set to dynamic electronic music, sometimes spontaneously improvising sequences that the group picks up quickly and deftly.
Though many of the 150+ performers in Authority Figure don’t identify as dancers or have dance training, the performers I observed certainly did. Kennedy, who has trained as a dancer for nearly his whole life, tells me he specifically asked to work with skilled dancers for his portion of the piece.
All choreographers were told to create off of themes of authority and obedience, and Kennedy has chosen to explore the notion of formal dance as an authoritative force.
He tells me he’s interested in “becoming comfortable in your body, and knowing the rules so you can break them. I feel like now there’s so much work where people are just breaking the rules and they’re not aware of them, and that’s really problematic to me. We all can hit a 5th position, plié, whatever, it’s about doing that but having everything else be off. It’s fucking up the textbook.”
To do so, his work for Authority Figure mixes sleek formal technique with sharp, odd movements and stylized versions of everyday gestures. “You can only see someone do a perfect pirouette so many times, and it’s stunning and amazing but a lot of those dancers at times don’t know how to be pedestrian, or don’t know how they naturally moved before their training took over how their body works,” he says. “It’s very interesting to me, the subtle differences in the way we move. When people see [dancers] do single count phrases and all these things, they’re like, ‘I can’t do that.’ Then they see a wave or a covering of the mouth, something we all naturally can do, [and] it adds them to the conversation because the impossible becomes possible.”
This is just one small part of the massive undertaking—Kennedy’s section is only four minutes total. Interestingly, each choreographer has only been working independently up to this point. No one fully knows what the other is doing. This only adds to the mysterious nature of the piece, which the directors firmly call an experiment.
“It’s hard to call it a show. It’s hard to say it’s a certain thing, because its hard to really know how everyone’s going to perceive this,” says Kinlaw. “There is no written-out streamlined theme for you to digest and interpret. That’s why saying these things through the medium of performance can be really powerful. You can interpret it as you see it. It’s specific to your mind.”
“It will only happen once for everyone. Even if you come back it’s not going to happen in the same way. Can’t rewind, can’t press pause,” Mirabile adds.
Despite its sprawling size, the project’s creative and production team is comprised largely of local, Bushwick-based artists. Michael Potvin (Nitemind), who is lighting the piece, runs the Stream Gallery in the same building as Otion Front. Monica works at Happyfun Hideaway (where this interview was conducted), and the bar’s owners also own nearby art space Secret Project Robot, where Authority Figure has also been rehearsing.
“I’m very excited for what is happening right now. I think it’s going to change the face of culture and ideas and happenings in Brooklyn and in Bushwick, for sure,” says Kennedy. “A rare thing you get in Bushwick is to do performance that people are sitting down for. There’s nothing formal, and I think it holds back the culture a little bit, because purists and people with money who will be supporting it otherwise are not viewing it with those eyes because they’re like, oh, you’re doing this in a club. I think it’s going to bring a lot of respect and eyes and opportunity that they’re doing a thing like [Authority Figure].”
“Just because we’re overseeing this project doesn’t mean we know more than anyone else,” says Kinlaw. “We’re figuring out how to best be in this position we’ve put ourselves in. The dynamic between people is limitless and forever and not easy sometimes. But it’s what makes it worth it.”
Working in small groups for most of the process was intentional, as Mirabile and Kinlaw felt it important to cultivate spaces of intimacy and friendship in the midst of creating something so large-scale.
“We’re talking about heavy things and it’s severe and the performance itself is intense as fuck, but what it’s actually about is love and caring for one another. It’s very obvious it’s been such a project of love and passion,” adds Mirabile. “Damn, I could cry.”