Nick Cave’s Soundsuits Turn Dance Into Political Action

The multidisciplinary artist creates ecstatic action at the Park Avenue Armory.

"Up Right" dancers parade in front of curtain of mylar streamers at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: James Ewing.

From June 7 to July 1, the Chicago-based, multidisciplinary artist Nick Cave transformed the vast Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory into a venue for two exuberant projects that combined elements of performance, installation art, playground glee and rave-party bacchanalia (sans alcohol or drugs). As jubilant — even ecstatic — as the dancers, singers and pianist were, make no mistake: This is serious stuff. Cave is a self-declared “artist with a conscience.” A pioneer in merging art, craft and participatory performance, Cave has a political strategy behind the whimsical Soundsuits, or wearable sculptures, for which he’s known. Katie Delmez, curator of a recent exhibition of Cave’s work at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum, called similar performances at her museum “a visual and performative fulfillment of the fact that Black Lives Matter,” offering “an opportunity for healing from wounds of racism and hate.”

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Nick Cave is a visual artist who fuses art with performance and community engagement. Photo: Sandro.

Soundsuits exist as both stand-alone sculptures that are sold in galleries and as protective body armor to disguise dancers who don them. Often 10-feet tall, they transform the wearer into a fantasy creature: a Dr. Seussical shaman with resemblance to Mardi Gras Indians, indigenous Native Americans and tribal Africans engaging in dance-based ceremonies. Composed of thrift-shop materials like raffia pom-poms, beads and synthetic hair in day-glo colors, the suits are activated by movement.

Viewers who were lucky enough to see Cave’s 2013 HEARD.NY — 30 dancers in horse costumes, stomping, twirling and shaking their tail feathers in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall — reacted with delight to the dance, music and rustling sounds.

Growing out of a bricolage aesthetic and textiles-meet-disco mashup, the Soundsuits reflect Cave’s background as a fiber artist as well as an Alvin Ailey-trained dancer. The immediate impetus for their creation in 1992 was both profoundly personal and darkly political. After seeing video footage of Rodney King’s brutal beating by LA policemen in 1991, Cave found himself in a Chicago park, staring at the ground. “I started thinking of myself more and more as a Black man — as someone who was discarded, devalued, viewed as less than,” he told The New York Times in 2009. Seeing sticks on the ground — also items considered of no value — he picked them up and eventually fashioned hundreds of three-inch sticks into what Joseph Beuys would have called “social sculpture.”

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Cave’s original Soundsuit was made of hundreds of twigs.

When Cave realized he could wear the sculpture, he found it liberating, disguising all traces of identity: class, gender, race. The reconfigured twigs — symbol of something cast off — became a protective skin, behind which he could disappear. But the suit also made a ruckus when he moved, a noise that represents the need to make one’s voice heard in protest. Both concealing and revealing one’s innate power and imagination, the Soundsuits, Cave has said, are “vehicles for empowerment.”

Twenty-seven years after King’s beating, police brutality against Black people has only become more frequent and Cave’s message more urgent. The roster of victims is tragic: Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and on and on. The work called Up Right — one of two Cave commissions at the Armory — references Black Lives Matter, but it ultimately transcends despair and fear to end in hope for transcendence.

In the Up Right performance, young members of Vy Higginsen’s Sing Harlem Choir responded to its leader’s question — “Are you afraid?” with — a shout of “Yes!” and hands in the air like the hands-up-don’t-shoot posture associated with Black Lives Matter. But, as the soaring baritone of Jorell Williams and soothing words sung by the choir resonated through the hall, Cave’s stand-ins (called “Initiates” — young men dressed in ordinary street clothes) appeared with arms held high. They stripped off their outer garments and sat on stools as the choir crooned. People in lab coats (known as “Practitioners”) entered, wheeling the bright components of individual Soundsuits. As the choir sang, the Practitioners slowly and tenderly groomed the bundles of raffia, mylar, beads and hair and placed them on the Initiates. The process of metamorphosis was slow, solemn, ritualistic.

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Dancer dressed in Cave’s Soundsuit at Armory. Photo: James Ewing.

When their elaborate costumes were complete, the reborn Initiates paraded through the Drill Hall to the choir’s chant of “Walk!” A 100-foot curtain made of 40-foot-long strips of colored mylar (Cave calls it “Chase”) zig-zagged through the darkened hall like sweeping curtains. A soprano sang an anthem by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the lyrics rising in volume: “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone.” As the notes and words reached a crescendo of powerful emotion, the crowd leapt up, erupting in a whooping ovation, clapping and swaying, transformed from passive spectators to participating dancers themselves.

After each Up Right performance and on weekends in an event called The Let Go, Cave invited anyone and everyone to become partners in creating his art. Collective catharsis and release are the goals. Community groups from all five boroughs like yoga practitioners, hula-hoopers, Habitat for Humanity volunteers and church choirs were encouraged to “let go” and to “come as you are, come as you want to be.” Instead of King’s famously plaintive plea, “Can’t we all just get along?” Cave substitutes, “Can’t we all just dance together?”

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Ecstatic dance of liberation. Photo: James Ewing.

Building understanding and acceptance through dance is the point. As Rebecca Robertson, the Armory’s executive producer, put it in a press release, “By harnessing and cultivating the power of community, this commission serves as a spirited reminder of our shared humanity.” The curator Tom Eccles saw both Up Right and The Let Go as a “testament to Nick’s unwavering commitment to uplifting communities and effecting change through art.”

Reminiscent of 1950s-‘60s era Happenings, Cave’s work adds the viewer as participant to his hodgepodge of dance, music, sound, theater, poetry and sculpture. Without the kinetic element, the sculpture would be supremely fanciful but static. As soon as you put a human being inside one of the Soundsuits and set it in motion with other individuals carousing to the same beat, it feels like a cross between a church revival and Mardi Gras. Cave hopes to transform his art into a start: the start of a dynamic movement that unites us all in a joyous dance of life.