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By Karen Butler
for The Brooklyn Papers

Eight years ago, long-time Williamsburg resident Noemie Lafrance happened upon the ruins that were once the neighborhood’s glorious McCarren Park Pool. Seeing the incredible potential there, the renowned artist and choreographer was moved to create "Agora," a site-specific, performance-art piece.

"I was inspired right away to do something there," Lafrance told GO Brooklyn. "And I think that the time has just come for me to do it. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it on that scale eight years ago. I probably knew that because the site demands something really grandiose to happen. It’s so big, it’s hard to fill it even with 30 people.

"And I knew, also, how difficult it would be to get through the bureaucracy that’s involved," said the native Canadian. "And it’s not even only the bureaucracy, it’s really community outreach. It’s working with government. It’s working with everyone."

A celebration of the gathering of people and exchange of ideas in an open space, "Agora" is a performance piece combining dance and a recorded multi-channel sound installation, composed by Brooks Williams with Norm Scott. The performances on Sept 13-18 and Sept. 20-24 - at 8 pm - are scheduled to herald the re-purposing of the pool on Lorimer Street, between Driggs Avenue and Bayard Street.

Along with the New York City Parks Department, local community boards and various other organizations, donors and helpers, Lafrance and her non-profit, experimental arts production company, SENS (the French word for the senses), have been working to restore the historic pool and its surrounding structure as a cultural meeting place for the community, all the while fine-tuning the original performance-art piece they will stage there next month.

The estimated cost of the entire project is about $500,000, funded by federal and state grants, as well as private and corporate sponsors and various arts foundations.

"We are putting in some of our own money that we fund-raised, with a lot of sweat, to actually make that site possible for public access," explained Lafrance, an artist and entrepreneur active in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint neighborhoods for the past decade. "So, in that sense, we’re working with the Parks Department, because we are investing in the park, but also we’re thinking about it as something of a long-term investment. Because if you are going to put so much money into making the site available for the public and available for the performance, we’d like to spread the investment over time. I have many, many ideas about what the site can be, but right now, we’re really trying to get everyone together to see the site for both recreation and culture."

One of 10 pools built by the City of New York in 1936 in an effort to provide spaces for public gathering, leisure and to generate employment, the swimming hole, which is larger than three Olympic-size pools combined, was closed for renovations in 1984, but has never reopened. While some saw the vacant pool as an eyesore, Lafrance looked at it and decided she wanted to transform it into a 50,000 square-foot, multi-layered performance venue.

The NYC Parks Department has not only granted Lafrance and SENS permission to produce "Agora" there, but it offered to help find sponsors to support the repairs needed in order to make the site ready for the performances.

"There are many themes, but basically, it’s called ’Agora,’ and it’s about agoraphobia," explained Lafrance. "Agoraphobia is kind of the contrary of claustrophobia. It’s the fear of large spaces. There are people who can’t enter open spaces or can’t deal with crossing a large space. Usually, a symptom is movement inhibition, so it freezes you. And there is also another definition that has to do with social behaviors where people just never leave home because they are afraid of being out there in the world and something may happen. Something may change the course of their lives so they wouldn’t want to go outside.

"The [other] idea [behind the piece], is ’agora,’ the marketplace or the center of town, the place where people gather and meet. And a lot of my inspiration is to question, ’What is the meaning of public space?’"

Lafrance pointed out that McCarren Pool is the ideal spot to perform a piece with these themes since it was originally designed to hold 6,800 people looking for an escape during the Great Depression.

"The image of the public space is the plaza, which is kind of like the Greek ’agora,’" she said. "I was thinking the plaza might be a place you go to eat your sandwich, but it’s really a public space and a place to go where people go and exchange ideas. The reality of the performance and of the work that I do is people still have to gather to do that to really share ideas."

Lafrance said she chose 30 dancers from 250 people who auditioned for the piece last October. Six performers have been practicing in the studio since January.

"I’ve been working with six dancers that inspire me and that I feel really connected to," she confided. "And we’ve been making the material both in studio and outdoorsI really like to make the piece in the site. We’re going to work there all the way until September."

Acknowledging that other people and organizations have tried to revitalize the historic site in the past, only to be thwarted by the enormity of the space or the expense of the necessary repairs, Lafrance said she thinks a special event that demonstrates the space’s potential might just be the key to a new life for the pool.

"A lot of things are happening right now because this project is - I don’t want to say, ’like opening up a can of worms’ because there are a lot of beautiful things about it, too - but there are just a lot of contingencies with this project. And, I think, a lot of them are in regard to the future of this site, which is something really exciting to me," said the woman who staged the performance piece, "Migrations," at Manhattan’s Whitney Museum in May.

"I have worked in sites before, obviously," she said. "But I would come into sites, make something, love the site and then leave. In this case, that’s not what’s going onThis is an abandoned space, and it can become a functional space in the future. And it’s a space that sort of needs the attention and needs something to happen there And the community and everybody is really anxious and ready to see it happen."

Like Christo’s temporary installation of "The Gates" in Central Park last winter and the transitory Gregory Colbert’s Nomadic Museum, which attracted legions of visitors to Pier 54 last spring, Lafrance promised "Agora" will allow audiences to experience art outside of the traditional settings of museums, theaters and concert halls.

"I think more and more, not just in dance, but in all different art forms, I think we’re moving into the understanding that things exist inside a context and that context is part of the experience of the artwork itself," Lafrance said. "So a lot of contemporary artists are making works that don’t hang on a white wall anymore but that are about the wall itself. Or the gallery is the space, you know? It IS the experience."

 

The SENS production of "Agora" will be performed at the McCarren Park Pool (Lorimer Street, between Driggs Avenue and Bayard Street in Williamsburg) from Sept 13 through 18 and from Sept. 20 through 24 at 8 pm. Tickets are $40 and $25 for adults, $5 for children under age 12 and can be bought at the McCarren Park Pool box office (open Tuesday through Friday from Aug. 30 to Sept. 30, from 4 pm to 7 pm) and online at http://www.tix.com/Event.asp?Event=27688. Group discounts available.

For information about volunteering for the restoration effort, e-mail SENS at info@sensproduction.org or call (718) 302-5024.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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