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Rising and Falling at the Ann Hamilton Tower

May 18, 2009

The Alexander Valley in Sonoma, California is home to one of the most extraordinary performance venues I have ever encountered in my life. I visited the Ann Hamilton Tower at Oliver Ranch near the small winery-obsessed town of Geyserville yesterday afternoon for a site-specific performance by the Joe Goode Performance Group and the San Francisco Girls Chorus which, though in some ways under-developed, I will never forget.

The performance took place in a ten-storey concrete tower purpose-built for performance by the visual artist Ann Hamilton. In a 2002 interview for Sculpture Magazine, ranch owner and arts patron Steven Oliver provides a good description of the background behind the construction of the Tower and its design:

[Ann Hamilton] became interested in towers and began to bring me picture books and a lot of books about a particular tower in Italy. Her project here evolved from that tower.

We own a home near Orvieto, the site of the so-called Well of St. Patrick (1527-40), which was built by Clement VII to provide the city with a water supply in case of attack. The site has a traditional connection to St. Patrick. The well descends more that 60 meters: in order to get enough water to the surface the architect designed a double helix staircase. This means that the mule goes down one staircase, loads up with water, and comes back up the other staircase. The two staircases never touch; they are interlaced with each other so that the mule never has to turn around and never meets another mule. It's the same form as DNA. Ann proposed a double helix staircase inside the stonework, descending to a water source: into the ground and up out of the ground. It looks rather agricultural in form, like a silo, and she wants to put it down by the barn. It will be a performance space, and she will curate poetry readings and concerts of a single voice or a single instrument.

We hired acoustic engineers to do some studies and then realized we didn't really care. Clearly there are going to be reverberations and echoes. The artists will adapt to the space. The nice thing is that the audience and the performers will never be more than a staircase apart, because the audience can all be on the up staircase and the performers on the down staircase. But they're going to be interlaced with each other. It's going to be quite an amazing space.

Indeed, the Tower is an amazing space. Joe Goode and the Girls' Chorus didn't go quite as far as they could in terms of exploring its possibilities. This was perhaps partly due to the fact that the production's creators didn't have a whole lot of time to work in the space itself -- I heard from one of Goode's collaborators that he and his dancers only spent a couple of days on site and spent the rest of the time developing the piece elsewhere. This makes no sense: For creating work for a venue as unique in design and acoustic as the Tower, the artists should have been able to gain direct access to it for weeks beforehand. Nevertheless, their performance piece, Fall Within, still made for a magical experience.

The eclectic selection of songs performed by the Girls' Chorus made the entire Tower ring like a bell throughout the performance. Music included a French Canadian folksong ("O-Yo-Yo" arranged by Stephen Hatfield), Ross Whitney's "Pentatonic Alleluia", a traditional Mi'kmaq Honour song by Lydia Adams, Erik Bergman's Dreams, Op 85, Henry Purcell's "Music for a While" and "The Road Home" from Southern Harmony adapted by Stephen Paulus. Although the styles of the musical works were all very different, they blended with the space and spirit of Goode's piece gorgeously.

The high voices and fact that the singers were positioned right at the top of the Tower above the audience's heads through most of the show created a mood of uplift. We found our ears tuned towards the sky. The movement, by contrast, was pitched more downwards towards the red-dye-tinted pool of water at the bottom of the Tower. The dancers slid on their stomachs down the Tower's brass banisters, held each other back from throwing themselves off the stairways by creating incredible cantilevered human sculptures, and interacted with the Girls Chorus through lower-pitched singing and spoken text on the theme of falling.

The effect of all of this was to pull the audience in two different directions -- upwards and downwards. This feeling mirrored the shape of the Tower itself. It was beautiful.

I only wished that artists had explored the possibilities of the well at the bottom of the Tower more fully and choreographed the sudden fall of the blue tarp, which covered the ceiling of the Tower until it was released towards the end of the performance, in a more theatrical manner. Also, the choir and the dancers didn't seem to have a whole lot to do with each other during the piece from a physical perspective. The way in which their voices intermingled was divine. But I would have liked to have seen a more carefully-thought-out relationship in terms of choreography between the two groups. The girls just stood there and eventually paraded down the staircase of the Tower at the end followed up by the choirmaster. It all felt a bit half-hearted and abrupt.

Meredith Monk created the inaugural piece for the Tower when it opened last year. I sadly missed it. I am looking forward to seeing how other artists explore the potential of this extraordinary space.


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