Battle Hymn at the Armory and other Hidden City offerings

Large and particularly bland office buildings line the gradual ascent of Market Street westward, as it prepares to cross the Schuylkill.  I was headed to the First Troop Armory; I’d read the address, but couldn’t quite remember it.  My eyes were out for the blue easel which sits on the sidewalk and marks all Hidden City venues, but what caught me first was the giant rusticated turret sticking out just south on 23rd St.  This, clearly, was my destination.  Though I’d passed the spot countless times, and though I’m endlessly curious about the city’s buildings, I’d somehow failed to ever note this veritable castle. Hence even before Leah Stein’s dance company even took the floor, Hidden City achieved its stated goal: to re-enchant us with landmarks generally forgotten but in our midst.  The festival has been imagined and planned over three years — Libby expressed overwhelmed-ness at its extent (search this blog for more coverage) – but it’s already half-over, so you should gain admittance to the normally private sites on one of the two remaining weekends.


When I arrived at the armory, a crowd of 15 were left outside, sold out, until admission was deemed possible.  As we stepped through the entryway large enough for a tank brigade, we saw that the entire dance floor and seating area took up a mere half of the giant space.  A “full house,” it seems, meant only a shortage of folding chairs.

The rough granite cladding the Armory’s exterior is façade-only, for the inside is vast and open, supported by steel trusses very much one with the classic European railroad terminals of the same era.   Except for two shrouded Humvees behind us, nothing marked the space’s military function.

The lights dimmed, and from the distant corner, the incantation of hoof steps commenced it: a horse trotted in through the bright archway, paused, circled, and trotted out.  To us in the modern world, this sound evokes something poignant and long ago.  Only now did I make the connection: the armory was built for war fought by horses, not Humvees; only latter did I read the program’s note on the venue: it housed the First Troop Cavalry, which was formed in 1774 and missed no action from the Revolution up through World War II.  The piece is titled Battle Hymn, and it’s a collaboration between choreographer Leah Stein and composer David Lang.

Leah Stein has made her career working in unusual spaces; long before I’d heard of Hidden City, I was drawn to a staging of Carmina Burana she did at Girard College.  I left that performance somewhat unsatisfied; the 1935 opera ranges over the whole of human emotions, and is so forceful by itself – beginning and ending with the cymbal-smashing ‘O Fortuna’ – that it doesn’t need enhancement by gesamtkunstwerk.  I couldn’t appreciate the dance, the space, and the music all at once.  Lang’s composition here, contemporary and more minimal, brings the dancers, and the space, into better balance.


From the darkness opposite us, six dancers took position. Behind us, a strange percussive instrument beat wildly.  As the dancers began to move, utterly dwarfed in the armory, it was immediately clear that space was as important as bodies in constituting this dance.   Each in her own spot, they began to play along lines – forward and back, or side-to-side – lunges and squats.  They wore frayed khaki uniforms with a vest of cloth loops – an artistic riff on chain-link.

Then, also from far across the space, the Mendelssohn Glee Club emerged, as infantry: six rows of bodies in plain dark uniforms, ammo bags slung across shoulders.  First, silently.  Then, a few sparse piano chords.  Then, striking the ear as pleasingly as only a chorus in stone architecture can, a succession of single, sustained notes.  The fifty-person chorus marched forward nearly imperceptibly, stepping and pausing, moving with each syllable they sung.  Leah had fun setting this larger mass against her dancers, who first keep their distance; then, from slow, elegant walks they break into light-footed scampers and twirls, down and through the rows of the chorus’s military formation.

Lang drove the narrative.  He researched Civil War texts, digested them, and set them to music.  In the final piece, the percussionist gave a rapid snare-role of battle, and the soprano section soared above it.  At center, all six dancers engaged in what could only be bloodshed: loose bodies, spinning, flailing limbs.  Their movements generally are modest, not trying too hard to stun or impress.  At the most striking moment, in fact, the chorus breaks formation, and rove at random, with the dancers, filling the enormous floor space.

I asked Leah afterwards – the First Troop Amory was not the original site; rehearsal began at an armory in Frankford: “a very different feeling – abandoned, beautiful.  I walked in here and my heart sunk.”  But she worked with it.  Unlike other dances for “unusual sites” (Leah’s term – fresher than ‘site-specific’) where the architecture offers niches and variations, I commented twice that here, space seemed all she had.   But Leah insisted – “and the content.”  I wish I could see it again, because my experience had been only sensual.  I didn’t realize until too late that the program gives lyrics to all David Lang’s five compositions.

Sunday afternoon, I checked two more sites off my list. First, Girard College – approach up Corinthian Street, which leads directly to Founders Hall, a temple of a building. One year ago, Peregrine had Steve Roden pilot his piece, to get a feel for pulling off nine such things simultaneously.  He performed live, synthesizing audio samples made during a residency there.  But he evidently felt the restlessness that I felt – seated, and wanting instead to wander.  “It’s not about coming up with a piece and performing it in a space,” he said at the time – “it’s having a dialogue with the space.”

So, up three flights of stairs, step first into the Archive – a sepia-toned room, musky and silent, lined with old tomes and files that constitute the college’s history.  Anyone with a taste for institutional decay will bug out. Steve’s only intervention here, it seems, was to sweep the debris into small piles and leave them – as if to say, this is a real space, subject to the real decay of history.  If you linger a few minutes, you’ll shed some awareness of the outside world, and better experience the next three spaces – domed rotundas, identical in layout but in varying states of dilapidation, each with its own art work.


In the ‘white room’, on a simple table, Steve laid out all five feet of an accordion-style book letterpressed for the exhibition.  Bend over and read it; it contains an alphabetical list of sentence fragments excised from documents in the archive.  Leading off: “among the large mass of books and papers, an entirely different sensation.”  And, for ‘D’, a reference to the founder, whose grew wealthy as a merchant: “during a period that he built the splendid fleet of vessels which he principally named after distinguished French philosophers.”  Roden calls this book a collage, but I didn’t get the requisite sense of composition – perhaps, after hours in the Archive, you feel the enormity of all that’s come before us in even one small place, and you can only cull an interesting list.

In the next room, peeling green paint has left the wall speckled.  Steve constructed a set of shipping crates, which lie tossed about, a drawing propped against each – colorful, abstract, perhaps riffs on nautical maps, but I’m not sure.  They are spot-lit, but by the oculus – a round opening to the sky at the top of the dome.  Each crate is stenciled as if belonging to one of Girard’s ships – “GLORIE,” “HELVETICUS,” etc.  The lettering, however, is only penciled, and fails to satisfy visually – I have in mind the dark, bold text on the shipping crates my father would bring home regularly from the curbs of Chinatown, circa late 1970s.  (Granted, Steve worked from across the country, and it’s difficult to control stuch details.)


Round the corner, and you’ll find Vessel of Silence standing colorfully but starkly, firmly in the center of the final rotunda.  It’s a messy latticework of colored beams, the most striking object of the installation.  Each beam’s length corresponds to the whole installation’s title, ‘nothing but what is therein contained,’ which itself was plucked from a document in the Archive room.  This sort of meaning does not interest me; I think Steve does best with sound.  From speakers mounted at the sculpture’s center plays softly mesmerizing music written for crystal goblets, a choice born of Steve’s fascination with the ‘glassychord’ – a word he discovered in the Archive.  It was Ben Franklin’s original name for his glass harmonica, as well as the title of the letterpress book.  The resonating crystal blends well with the sad banjo notes plucked from within the shipping crates next door.  Though composed, both pieces filter through the space, more ambient than a defined score.


Finally, just before 7pm, I ascended 18 floors of the Inquirer Building on North Broad to see Aleksandra Mir’s piece titled Newsroom Philadelphia.  I anticipated it too literally; the elevator opened to only a small office with dropped ceiling and a secretary facing me – whoops, that’s the docent.  No typewriters dangled from above, nor was there re-mixed audio of editors and writers hollering across a newsroom.  ‘Installation’ is not an applicable term.  Instead, Aleksandra has cut up and re-mixed headlines, images, and copy from the past nine years of the Inquirer, and hung them in staid frames around the room.  Every re-created page makes clear the absurdity of biased gender coverage in our society’s most venerable of institutions, the daily paper.  Trifling headlines like “Girls Left Wounded By Hook-up Culture” are juxtaposed with articles on e.g. the dearth of females on corporate boards, mismatched to photos of…Hillary Clinton and…women in lingerie.


I fully endorse Alexandra’s agenda.  I also share her stated concern that “the future of newspapers is under increasing threat.”  However, for a site-specific festival, you do not feel that she spent much time stewing in her particular spot.  (The docent seated by the giant corinthian columns at Girard College, in contrast, shared with me her take of that piece:  “it seems to come up from the ground of the place.”)  Visually, in its materiality, Newsroom Philadelphia also fails to satisfy.  I’d have loved real collages, but Alexandra only got to the paper’s digital archives.  Short of newsprint, I wish she’d worked with her digital printer to make them bigger –  they’re a bit diminutive compared to the morning paper’s full spread – and blacker – everything’s got a dark blue hue, not a true newspaper black.  Finally, the work itself was quite quotidian; I saw the irony but not the art.

Interestingly, Alexandra did manage to rile some powerful elements at the Inquirer, who, after its opening weekend in the building’s lobby, ordered the work moved up to the unused 18th floor.  The paper even covered the controversy themselves. Whoever was offended clearly misunderstood the target of her critique: she’s pointing to a society-wide gender bias, with the Inquirer only an easily visible manifestation.

Backtrack to opening weekend – I visited Shiloh Baptist, which, like the Armory, was also discovered for me by Hidden City.  Unlike other Frank Furness buildings, this church doesn’t exude his singular style – typically called Victorian gothic.  (Recall his bondage-esque ironwork on the front steps of PAFA.)  Roberta describes the art work there, and the docent at Girard College, who’d been stationed at Shiloh previously, insisted that the installation grows on you.  It helps, too, that she heard the piece talked through many times by the warm and outgoing volunteers from the congregation, who staff the site.  Part of Philadelphia’s charm is that the docent seated atop the back staircase to the former locker room at Shiloh is Thaddeus Squires’s mother.  He runs Peregrine Arts, and came up with Hidden City.

Visionary creative endeavors inevitably narrow as concept turns into reality.  Thaddeus, I think, had dreamed quite big; the final program encompasses nine sites, and we probably can’t appreciate how tough are the logistics for such an event.  I presume, however, that Peregrine already plans to work on this scale again, because they ask earnestly for feedback.   Me, I’d like to hear their story – of Hidden City’s three-year genesis, the negotiations with the communities and owners, the hoped-for sites which failed to work, and how Peregrine selected the artists they did. For now, I’m most looking forward to Revival, a performance at the Old Met this week.