Buffalo has recently welcomed a hot new performance venue. It's got towering ceilings to rival Shea's Performing Arts Center, long vistas to challenge the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and acoustics that out-reverberate any church in town.
The Marine A grain elevator, a massive concrete structure that sits amid a complex of other elevators and weather-beaten remnants of Buffalo's great industrial heyday, has lately popped up on the radar of the local arts community big-time. That community came out in droves Saturday night for the latest and largest cultural event to be held in the space so far – the theater, video, dance and music installation called "American Grain."
The event, organized by Mark Goldman and executed by a large team of artistic collaborators from the University at Buffalo, Torn Space Theater, Nimbus Dance and elsewhere, was designed as a kind of coming-out party for the space. Seven of its 110-foot-high concrete silos became stages for separate dance, theater, video and music installations – each one a thoughtful illustration of the space's strange visual and aural potential.
As performance venues, grain elevators are not without challenges, which range from an absence of lighting and strange acoustics to the limited number of people who can fit inside each silo. But the raw beauty of the buildings, long the subjects of artists' and architects' creative fantasies, has lately become irresistible to those seeking to turn these supposed challenges into virtues.
Shortly before the first series of performances at 6 p.m, visitors lined up outside the space listened as Torn Space Theater co-founder Dan Shanahan gave instructions on moving through the silos. He instructed the crowd to follow a series of lights through the space, which would illuminate when one performance was finished and it was time to move on to the next.
With that, the group of 40 or so filed into the first silo and many craned their necks to peer up to the ceiling 110 feet above. People tested the acoustics by whistling and clapping, allowing the sounds to bounce up into the space and finally back down after long moments.
After a visual piece in which light bulbs hanging from a long wire suspended from the ceiling illuminated in a pattern, the group filed into the second silo, where actor John "Giovanni" Joy delivered a strange, surrealistic monologue while seemingly tied to a chair. The next silo featured two aerial dancers from Nimbus Dance suspended from the ceiling by long ropes as if they had rappelled from the roof to explore a deep cave. They performed a graceful ballet set to percussive music and the piece resolved itself a vaguely macabre way.
Next up was a performance from Nimbus Dance's Nancy Hughes, who spun in circles atop a metal rack containing several packages of Wonder Bread and played an imaginary cello. After a spell of this, she hopped down from the rack as images danced across a webbed screen above her and handed out pieces of bread to the audience, who wondered whether to take a bite.
Another piece featured a Model-T Ford, with headlights blazing, coming slowly into the space after which the actor Lenny Ziolkowski gave a strange and beautifully lit tap-dancing routine.
The most visually arresting and successful installation of the evening came in a simple piece called "Portrait Sequence: Blanching Out," as a figure outfitted in a white costume embedded with neon lights hung from a cable high up in the silo and gradually descended nearly the full height. It was a stunning visual picture of the sort Shanahan is known for creating, and the crick in my neck for having to look straight up for so long was worth it.
The evening ended with an excellent performance of Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina's lonely, haunting, 1996 cello quartet "Quaternion." The selection of the piece, full of little fragments of chromatic scales and staccato notes that sounded like insects skittering across the surface of a water, took full advantage of the echo chamber the silos effectively create. It was a lovely end-cap to an evening of strange and strangely satisfying art – and a perfect illustration of why artists of all stripes should continue to explore the creative potential of these concrete behemoths.
2 1/2 stars (out of four)
Presented by Torn Space Theater. Saturday evening in Silo City, 20 Childs St.