Private Dances: Lotto Royale Offers a ‘Door to an Experience’

“Can I fall in love with a stranger?” the dance artist Lauren Bakst said. “Could a stranger fall in love with me? Will I be rejected? Will we be disappointed?”

It’s hard to know what will happen at Lotto Royale, a two-day presentation of one-on-one performances, but it does bring out the nerves. It’s like a blind date: Audience members reserve a time slot and are paired with dance artists through a lottery system. “Maybe we don’t want each other,” Bakst said. “But what can we do together? As I’ve been working, that’s what’s kept my attention.”

This weekend, 17 dance artists — including Amelia Bande, Mayfield Brooks, Moriah Evans, Jennifer Monson, Elliot Reed, Alex Rodabaugh and Anh Vo — will each present six private performances over two days as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival. This is the second edition of Lotto Royale, which was first presented in Berlin; the format was conceived by Camila Malenchini, a dancer and curator, in collaboration with the choreographer Layton Lachman and the collective T.E.N.T.

The very nature of Lotto Royale addresses the notion of value; some of the artists are well known, while others are less established. “It doesn’t matter who it is,” Malenchini said in an interview on Zoom. “It’s the work of someone, and it’s a door to an experience.”

To participate, audience members reserve a timed ticket and meet their artist at the South Street Seaport Museum before traveling to a nearby spot — indoor or outdoor — where each performance becomes an odd mix of private and public. The same was true in Berlin, said John Hoobyar, a New York dancer turned producer, who attended as an audience member.

Led into a park and blindfolded — fear not, he gave his consent — Hoobyar was given objects to hold. The performer he was paired with spoke to him about his experience in the moment as well as “just about life, the world, whatever,” Hoobyar said. “It felt exciting and refreshing.”

As a guest curator at River to River, Hoobyar has brought Lotto Royale to New York, along with Malenchini and Lachman, who also curated this edition.

“Part of what I’m interested in is the vulnerability of not knowing whose work I am going to see or who I would be paired with,” Hoobyar said of the concept. “It’s already a pretty intimate proposal, but not knowing who you’re going to have this moment with makes it feel all the more so.”

For the audience member, such moments may involve text, talking or task-based movement, along with dancing. Most artists spoke about having options and alternative plans in mind; some talked about treating audience members like guests. As it challenges the logic of consumption, Lotto Royale also requires some faith. Usually when you buy a ticket, you have some notion of what you’ll see; but a lottery is random.

Bande, one of the participating artists, said: “I keep on thinking about the New York housing lottery and the green card lottery and then also this menu of artists: Who’s the big prize? Who’s the consolation prize? Who’s the steak on the menu and who is the house salad? Not because I feel there’s that hierarchy, but I felt it was interesting and weird.”

Hoobyar said he hoped the experience would give artists a chance to change how they measured success in performance. How often do choreographers get to present six shows in such quick succession? They can be nimble; they can change and shift from one performance to the next.

Originally, Lotto Royale, which was born during the pandemic, was simply a way to perform, period. Malenchini invited around 30 artists to create one-on-one performances in public spaces; the only condition was that they would be live. “Performance was trying to adapt itself to online stuff and to video making,” she said. “I was like, the live thing is the most important thing.”

The New York artists have individual approaches and interests. Alex Rodabaugh is thinking about how he has struggled as a viewer when he could see fellow audience members during a performance. “I would like to drink water or shift my weight without worrying about things, and I’m also thinking about accessibility as well,” he said. “I‘m interested in leaving space for the audience member to figure out what they feel comfortable with. I feel like I’m going to give them a chair, and I can put it close or far away, but I’m not looking for an audience member to be good as much as being good to the audience member.”

Mayfield Brooks is thinking about the project as a kind of expedition. “Choose your own adventure is very much bubbling up for me,” Brooks said. “Because the journey is part of the performance for me.”

The refreshing part of being one on one, Brooks said, is that it takes the preciousness away from performance. At the same time, “I feel like there’s so much fear in public,” they said. “There’s this kind of fear on the subway. These kinds of art projects could be interventions, happenings that open up ways to just be a little bit more courageous in public — and caring. And just change the chemistry of the public space a little bit.”

Bakst, speaking in a video interview with Brooks and Julia Gladstone — who is training to become a psychotherapist, making her life all about, she said, “getting into the nuances of the one on one” — is thinking about public space, too. It’s become more privatized, Bakst said. “And I think there’s a need to work our collective muscles of being able to bear the presence of others,” she said, citing Lauren Berlant’s book, “On the Inconvenience of Other People.” Gleefully, Gladstone held up her own copy.

“We actually have to work our capacity to be with the needs of others,” Bakst said. “New York really asks us to do that — especially in terms of forms of life that are repressed and that are oppressed in the city. And it’s more like an everyday practice than a protest or something. I feel like this frame can be an invitation to work that muscle.”

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