At the Whitney Biennial, Flood Preparation as Social Dance

When the choreographer Madeline Hollander makes a site-specific work, she gets to know the site inside and out. On a recent afternoon, she stood at the base of a warehouse on 10th Avenue, around the corner from the gleaming glass entrance of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“All of the materials are stored in the second floor,” she said, pointing to a door on the warehouse’s upper level, as if unlocking a clue to a puzzle.

She was referring to materials that make up a vital but generally hidden facet of the Whitney’s architecture: its flood mitigation wall, a steel and aluminum barrier that she will partially erect and dismantle, with a team of 12 dancers and museum staff members, in a four-hour performance on Thursday evening.

Part of the Whitney Biennial, the ambitious work, “Ouroboros Gs,” brings attention to the museum’s vulnerable location at the edge of the Hudson River in an age of climate crisis. As extreme weather becomes more common, Ms. Hollander, 33, is interested in the rituals that evolve to prepare for it. In “Ouroboros,” for which she has devised simple repeating steps with names like “zigzag waltz” and “procession pivots,” she entertains the notion of flood preparation as a social dance: something that draws people together for regular, unhurried practice.

Ms. Hollander is not making light of climate change, but rather acknowledging its presence in our lives. Bracing for superstorms “has to become more of a pedestrian routine and less of an emergency procedure,” she said, noting the growing frequency of so-called 500-year floods. “It’s already our reality, and we may as well get really good at it.” In that spirit, she envisions “Ouroboros” as a poetic and pragmatic demonstration, not as a high-stress drill.

The Whitney’s flood mitigation system, including the wall (or mobile barrier system), was developed after Hurricane Sandy, about a year into construction on the new building. The storm filled the recently excavated basement with 30 feet of water, revealing the need for stronger flood protection.

“It’s a really beautiful system in itself,” Ms. Hollander said of the wall, which, when fully assembled, wraps around the front of the museum. Eager to take it out of hiding, she installed one portion for the duration of the biennial, on the western corner of the front steps — the building’s first point of contact with water in the event of a flood.

“Ouroboros” arrives during a busy year for Ms. Hollander, in which she is both branching out and returning to her roots: as a ballet dancer on the proscenium stage. Having worked mostly at the intersection of dance and visual art, she recently made her first foray into Hollywood, bringing her eye for expressive gesture to the set of Jordan Peele’s “Us.” Hired to choreograph an ominous ballet scene inspired by “The Nutcracker,” she stayed on as a movement consultant, developing signature physical vocabularies for the characters’ dueling selves.

Already at work on Mr. Peele’s next film, a reboot of “Candyman” (1992), she is also creating a piece for L.A. Dance Project — her first proscenium work — which is to have its premiere in Paris in October. (It then heads to the company’s home theater in California, Nov. 14-24.)

Ms. Hollander has long been fascinated by the behavior of anything that moves, whether humans, machines or weather patterns. Growing up in Los Angeles, she trained with Yvonne Mounsey, a muse of the choreographer George Balanchine. But she saw herself as something of a misfit in that world, she said, more enchanted by its infrastructure than by the pursuit of perfection.

“The coordination of the lights with the backdrop with the scrim with the fog — all of these large moving systems were always the point of interest for me, and less so whether or not I did the fouettés correctly,” she said. Taking ballet class, she added, “always felt like I was studying physics. It didn’t really feel like I was pursuing a profession.”

As a student at Barnard College, Ms. Hollander balanced off-campus ballet classes with her interest in cultural anthropology. For her senior thesis, on the relationship between the body and technology, she filmed her friends talking and created short video portraits of their body language. She still consults this repository, which she calls a Gesture Archive, for choreographic ideas.

After college, Ms. Hollander joined the corps of Corella Ballet, a small company in Spain, for two years. Returning from a tour of “Swan Lake” with a broken foot, she shifted her focus to her own work. She sees her direction as an artist since then, her gravitation toward galleries and outdoor spaces, as a reaction to her immersion in ballet: the many years, she said, of “being absorbed in that world and feeling like it was very magical but also isolating.”

Her own artistic practice has been anything but isolating, placing the body in conversation with systems of large and small scale: molecular, mechanical, meteorological. In “365” (2017), which commented on the depletion of sand and water as natural resources, a dancer walked atop a cement mixing truck, on a street in Buenos Aires, for 365 rotations of its barrel. In “New Max” (2018), performers followed instructions that involved raising the temperature of a gallery with their body heat. Ms. Hollander has found inspiration in evacuation drills, athletic events and the motion of beach rake trucks, one of which starred in her 2017 “Arena” at Rockaway Beach.

She said that when invited to create a work for the biennial, she first thought of the Hudson, imagining “a choreography between two tugboats” to be viewed from both sides of the river. Her research into the site soon led her to the Whitney’s flood mitigation system.

Jane Panetta, a curator of the biennial, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Hollander’s proposal “was somewhat unexpected for all of us.”

“When we had the flood mitigation system designed and fabricated,” she added, “we didn’t imagine that an artist would necessarily propose taking it out and doing a performance with part of it.”

On a blustery evening last week, Ms. Hollander — a wrench in one hand, her phone in the other — gathered with her dancers on the plaza outside the Whitney. They had limited rehearsal time with the wall materials and Whitney staff members (three from the operations department and three art handlers). But there were other matters to attend to, like inventing ways to unscrew metal caps and bolts in the ground, one phase of the wall installment. Step-touching along the pavement in pairs, they repeatedly paused and pivoted, loosening the caps with their feet.

“The choreography is always task first,” the dancer Marielis Garcia said later. “How do I best approach the task using this movement?”

Unlike the ballets she danced growing up, Ms. Hollander’s movement that tends toward the everyday. But Benjamin Millepied, the artistic director of L.A. Dance Project and a former New York City Ballet principal, said he sees the influence of her Balanchine training.

“There’s a clear understanding of classical craft when it comes to the architecture of her dances,” he said in a telephone interview. “If you watch enough Balanchine, and you pay attention, that sort of spatial understanding is something you can assimilate.”

And even as Ms. Hollander’s horizons have expanded, ballet class remains essential to her process, a place where her mind fills up with ideas and solutions to creative problems.

“In pliés, there’s always a moment when I remember my dreams from the night before, and whenever we start jumping, things get solved,” she said. “Or I’ll come up with the thing I hadn’t thought of that’s going to be the next piece.”

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