There’s already plenty of jockeying and herding happening in the New York subway system on any given morning of the year. But this week, commuters will encounter another sort of herd: 30 human/horse hybrids designed by Chicago artist Nick Cave (the artist, not the Bad Seed) as part of a public art project celebrating the 100th birthday of Grand Central, underwritten by the MTA and Creative Time.
The piece’s puntastic title, Heard NY, refers both to the rustling of Cave’s raffia costumes and to the stars of the show: 60 dancers from the Alvin Ailey School and 80 volunteers, accompanied by two harpists and a percussionist, who will animate Cave’s sound sculpture every afternoon until March 31.
At the first public performance yesterday morning, the piece was clearly still being staged: members of Creative Time instructed volunteers about where to begin and how to stand, as the dancers practiced their procession into Vanderbilt Hall. Cave’s soundsuits were mounted on wooden stands, already shedding neon-colored raffia. Each suit required two dancers to be complete: one wears the black, veiled “head” and one wears the rear end. As the dancers filed into the cold hall, wearing black shirts and shorts, it was hard to imagine how they’d even don the unwieldy suits, much less how they’d dance.
The unplanned nature of the show is part of Cave’s vision. He made his first soundsuit out of twigs, just after the Rodney King riots, in a fit of visceral emotion about race and identity. He explained the experience to the Washington Post:
When I put [the Soundsuit] on, it functioned as a barricade between the outer world and me. It felt scary and seductive. All those things also led me to think about awareness of society, where certain individuals appear to be scary, especially black males. It’s disconcerting when you cross the street and you hear car doors locking.
I was responding to the significance of identity, of how — similar to twigs — sometimes people can feel disregarded easily. I built this sort of suit of armor and by putting it on, I realized that I could a make a sound from moving in it. It made me think of ideas around protest, and how we should be a voice and speak louder.
He’s made hundreds of suits since 1992, working with glitter, yarn, synthetic hair, animated by the performers who wear them during any given performance. Cave intentionally keeps the choreography simple: the idea, he explained yesterday, is to let the dancer decide what sort of creature will emerge.
It’s hard to describe the sheer joy of Heard NY without sounding corny. As the musicians took their places and the humanoid horses pawed at the marble floor, a volley of whooping and cheers went up from the sullen mid-morning crowd--suddenly, the hall was full of whirling neon string and stomping hooves. Kids screamed and adults laughed. At some point, the horses separated into individual dancers, spinning in a dervish-like climax, until the harp signaled an end to the inaugural show.
Though Heard NY is currently paddocked in a hall next to Grand Central’s Main Concourse, Cave said that his neon horse and pony show may end up making its way into the main stage this week. But again, there’s no grand plan. “The piece will continue to unfold and transform over the course of the week,” he said to the gathered crowd. Then he added, laughing, “I’m inspired by what we’ve created in just six hours.”
More information on the show, which runs every day at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. until March 31, is here.