eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

The National Building Museum, Paperwork, And The Civil War Inspired This New Site-Specific Dance

It served as office space for hundreds of federal employees in the decades after the Civil War. It hosted inaugural balls for Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama. And these days, it’s often teeming with local families and tourists.

But on a recent weeknight at the National Building Museum, about 20 adults gathered not for an architecture or history tour but to chasse, do trust falls, and form human pyramids with strangers. The performers—a mix of formally trained dancers, novices, and architecture enthusiasts who were chosen at an open audition earlier this month—were preparing for Transits and Passages, a site-specific movement experience set to be performed on January 26.

“We don’t get a lot of opportunity in our daily lives, necessarily, to just play and to just explore,” says event choreographer Heather Sultz, who is also the museum’s creative in residence. “And when you’re given permission to do that, it can be revelatory for people.”

Sultz, who divides her time between Chicago and Los Angeles, has led corporate workshops and devised performances through her Keyhole Residencies program for the Evergreen Museum and Library in Baltimore and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, among others.

When Sultz is commissioned to take on a Keyhole Residency, she says she often is not concerned with choreographing trained dancers.

“I have an interest in reaching out beyond the performance world and the artistic world, and trying to reach those people who wouldn’t necessarily think of themselves as movers or as performers,” she says. “We all move, we’re all human beings, and it’s a really fundamental piece of who we are.”

Site-specific dance, which emerged roughly five decades ago with pieces by postmodern choreographers such as Trisha Brown and Eiko & Koma, aims to incorporate aspects of a given environment into a performance. The result can have a profound effect on not just the dancers, but the audience, who may come to see spaces in their community in new ways.

So what does a rehearsal for this type of performance look like? Chaotic yet structured, whimsical yet stirring.

One group of athleisure-clad dancers marches in time with an occasional kick-ball-change. Another races across the carpeted floor. A third group engages in an activated tableau of interpersonal pushes and pulls. There is a lot of hushed conversation as dancers consider how to collectively execute Sultz’s direction, and certainly some laughter as well.

“There’s no right or wrong answer,” says Adams Morgan resident and Transits and Passages performer Meredith Moore. The high school science teacher, 32, has some background in theater, perhaps one of the things that attracted her to one of her fellow participants, local theater actress and Montgomery Village resident Tricia Pisarra, 45. The two became fast friends while chatting at rehearsals for the ensemble’s core, a small group of the piece’s dancers that closely collaborated with Sultz.

For performer Alex Zuniga, a 40-year-old architect who performed as a dancer and actor in Peru before moving to Fairfax 14 years ago, Transits and Passages offers what he calls a “great opportunity for me to reconnect” with his body, theater, and dance, as well as the building itself.

The National Building Museum was constructed in the 1880s to provide office space for hundreds of federal employees tasked with an influx of post-Civil War pension requests from Union veterans. As part of its design, the central area of the palatial space—a key component of a building inspired by Roman structures of the Renaissance—is an expansive hall, ideal for hosting galas, inaugural balls, and the like. And on its exterior, a 1,200-foot terracotta frieze honors these veterans and those who cared for them.

Sultz incorporates elements of this history into her stage direction, with movement designed to reflect the endless paperwork of the pension bureau and highlight the building entrances, each of which sports a section of the frieze representing different aspects of Civil War history. During the show, the audience will experience not only the dance but also the building, traveling right along with the performers through all four floors. (Elevators and seating are available for guests needing accommodations.) Local musicians Greg Watkins and Tommie Adams Jr. will provide vocal and cello accompaniment, with the dancers joining them at times.

“I just want people to [experience] a space in a way they haven’t before,” Sultz says.

For the dancers, the opportunity is an exercise in trust. Glennis Muldoon, a 27-year-old researcher at the National Institutes of Health, has done a bit of contact improvisation before, a form of dance in which participants explore movement within partnerships.

“You really have to let go for it to work, and same goes for this,” she says.

Transits and Passages will be performed at 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturday, January 26 at the National Building Museum. Admission is free. Registration recommended. 

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