Review: A Boat Ride in the Bronx With Ancestral Spirits

Posted June 25, 2018 3:58 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — As we floated along the river in boats, we passed figures on the shore dressed in costumes from some other time, each absorbed in a riverine activity. Prepped by messages from a loudspeaker at the beginning of the journey, we could almost have been on a theme park ride, like Pirates of the Caribbean or Jungle Cruise. But the people we watched were real. And so was the river. We weren’t at Disneyland. We were in the Bronx.

More specifically, we were on the Bronx River — the star of Paloma McGregor’s performance ritual “Building a Better Fishtrap/from the river’s mouth.” Long mistreated as a garbage dump, the only freshwater river in New York City has been cleaned up and restored in recent years. These days, as a voice on the loudspeaker said — and as anyone can see — it’s full of life and beauty.

Twice on Sunday, audience members in life vests gathered at the dock in Starlight Park to board three-person canoes for a one-hour tour. With her itinerary, McGregor directed our attention to the river’s present revival, yet her carefully orchestrated ritual (presented by New York Live Arts) also blurred the sense of place and time.

The all-female cast deployed along the tree-jammed shore wore white, as if ready to perform the “Take Me to the Water” section of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” White is a spiritual color in the African diaspora, and many of the women seemed to be sorceresses, adjusting incense and mirrors, cackling, shaking as if possessed by spirits. Looking around warily, they might have been spirits themselves, ghosts of the slaves who once set traps or washed clothes in these waters.

They did these things in trees, but also across and under steel bridges or against the backdrop of graffiti-tagged concrete walls. And many of their accessories (loops of plastic, plush toys) could have been fished from the river in its garbage-dump days.

Thus, their actions — which included bursts of grounded dancing, with a motif of circling hands or whole undulating bodies, suggestive of fishing and its reeling in — seemed to occur somewhere between past and present. They were at once on this particular river and also on a mythic river, anywhere in the territory of the African diaspora, away from an ancestral home.

This was picturesque but also all-purpose and a little vague. When one of the women tossed an orange peel into the river or another dumped her clothes-washing water, was this a natural relationship with the river or the start of pollution?

My guide and fellow paddler, Toniann German, interpreted it as pollution. German is a member of one of the partner organizations, the Bronx River Alliance, and an alumna of another, the youth development program Rocking the Boat.

She told me how she had found the river as a teenager in the Bronx, and how it and Rocking the Boat had saved her from bad choices and given her pride in her neighborhood. This story had more specificity than anything in McGregor’s ritual — an illuminating connection to the other side of the foliage curtain, the Bronx that intruded on the performance in the form of a stray soccer ball and a boy who asked, “Are there sharks in there?”

Yet the presence of German and other guides spoke to the community effort of “Building a Better Fishtrap.” The chance to slip inside this communal love for the river was, along with the river itself, the best part of McGregor’s project, a perspective achievable only while afloat.