If you blinked this weekend, you would have missed it: two performances only, in an obscure First Ward park, involving dance and water and boats, no less, beneath clouds that rumbled and thundered with their own discontent – emporal, accidental theater.
None of it made sense on paper, and yet it was what it had to be, defiantly and beautifully. David Butler’s “Grain Dances, Steel Floats” defied parameters of both traditional theatrical vocabularies and of Buffalo’s self-crafted narratives. It was ambitious, it was self-aware, and it was confident.
Butler, whose contributions on the local theater scene range from set design and construction to company and leading roles, created the piece with inspiration from conversations held with scholars of Buffalo’s industrial roots and from a library of written and exhibited history, encompassing the history of our steel plants and grain elevators, of our immigrants and their journeys, of the strife of our race relations and the settlement of our villages.
These stories have always been available to us, if we only had interest in searching for them. But as any alert Buffalonian will notice, their resurgent retellings in this new millennium have fueled a whole new interest and relevancy. Where did we come from, and where are we going? What is our rust, and why is it pretty? Curiosity in our industrial, post-industrial and pre-industrial identities has exploded in these parts, between all-night art festivals held inside and around Silo City’s grain elevators, and a growing crop of Rust Belt-themed publications rising throughout the region. We care about our grime, and we find it beautiful. There’s more to understand, though.
History is about context, about projecting your own truths onto the lessons of others, bridging the gap of time by understanding our bonds. We hear profiles of racial legacies, that long ago Buffalo outpaced the country’s slow progressivism when it granted blacks the legal right to vote – before granting the same to women, however long before it was popular. This is profound for its historical significance, for its perceived graciousness of character, the City of Good Neighbors. But it is disheartening for its commentary on today’s picture of race relations, where we are still a city divided not only by our insecurities but physically, geographically, severely.
Butler tells these stories with a familiar enough construction – narration of a larger history, brief scenes for illustration – that often feels museumlike, life-sized dioramas coming to life with generalities and broad strokes. It works in this setup because we’re asked to focus on a large-scale story. Not to mention that the stages we’re asked to look at include both lighted platforms feet in front of us, and moving boats in the river, which we peer out at. Grain silos, our flat city’s mountains, loom over the proceedings like forefathers, foremothers, dead presidents. They are beautiful in this context, as this historic fourth wall.
There’s depth all over this piece, making it incumbent upon us to explore it, to find it where it’s being played out – a smart idea. Collaboration brought these moving elements together with seeming ease and coordination.
A company of black-clothed players re-enacts scenes of the Burning of Buffalo, of immigrant organizers, of wide-eyed young dreamers and of these concrete giants. It is a talented group of mostly student actors, who while not always on cue were at the very least, and with the utmost of dedication, visibly excited to be involved.
Musician David Kane performed his own compositions live and off to the side, providing an underscore that teased and satisfied our time-traveling curiosity. Seth Tyler Black’s projections illuminated screens and boat sails with beautiful textures, dreamscapes of the land and water. Dancers in white garb played off the stillness of the water, moving on moving boats to Nancy Hughes’ choreography. Carlie and John Rickus’ tag-team lighting design brought it all into focus.
There’s a lot to look at and too much to listen to, oddly, as quaint as it is. Maybe we don’t need to see it all but feel it all. Leaning in is the point. Studying is the goal. Education is the gift of this particular concept, and Butler gives us the lessons we need to learn. Our renaissance, at the birth of these grounds, was a response to something missing, something at war with itself. The products of this industrial age, and their remnants, at the foot of which we watch this theater, is their legacy. Butler’s greatest contribution here is in giving the stage back to these ghosts, and establishing a few new ones.
This is confrontational theater, environmental and exploratory, welcoming and interrogative. This is our historical past, but should we convince ourselves that our now-popular nostalgia for all things rust belt is about aesthetics, this explanation of our history tells us that there’s something more relevant than the color of our collar. It is about realizing that this city, which has dirt and grime to speak of, but heart and passion to float in, was born out of the same desire that is now fueling its rebirth. Which is to say, comfort, stability, freedom and the privilege of legacy.
Butler sets a new standard with this exciting piece. Not exactly for its execution or even creative expansiveness but for its bravery to be something new and old at the same time, to step outside of the boxes most theaters in town put themselves in. Butler built his own figurative stage, funded it organically, and presented it modestly. Its obligation was to his need to understand his city, to find his city. It’s an aggressive love letter that reads, emphatically: find me, learn me, share me, have me.