Photo Credit: Cassie Nordgren
In an abandoned nightclub way uptown, a quiet northern Manhattan residential neighborhood, budding with diversity, has been celebrating the arts in a month long festival derived and developed through Inwood Art Works. The festival, which is working to curate Inwood Art Works’ drive to champion, “the craft and cultural diversity of local professional and emerging artists, and education of youth through the arts”, is wrapping up with a, “brand-new dance narrative” called Alexa, inspired by the in-home virtual assistant of the same name.
Three well respected New York City dancer/choreographers— 2017 recipient of the Danza Debuts commission from the United Palace of Cultural Art, Cassie Nordgren, Hamilton performer, Roddy Kennedy, and Harlem based artist and creator, Alessandra Marconi— teamed up with ThruLines— “a dance initiative committed to the development of original dance narratives that are relevant and accessible to today’s diverse audiences”— to develop Alexa.
“Earlier this year a friend of mine came to visit from California, and during her visit, she spent a lot of time on her phone, checking her Facebook and Instagram. I remember thinking that our relationship seemed better when she was away— when she had to use her phone to contact me,” Nordgren, who’s also the founder and creator of the non-profit dance initiative ThruLines told Dance Network about the inspiration for the piece. “The first time the three of us walked into the space together, I shared my experience and suggested we do something involving communication through technology.”
Cassie Nordgren leading rehearsal with Morgan Unger, Natasha McCandless, Claire Avakian, Evan Kasprzak, and Giorgia Vitali. Photo Credit: Cassie Nordgren
Early in the creative process, the choreographic team had toyed with the idea of using Alexa as the MC of their concert performance, but as they worked and developed, they realized there was a much larger narrative to tell.
“In the show, Alexa is portrayed by three women who work as one unit. We decided to go with three women because we wanted to be able to spread the presence of Alexa throughout the space,” Nordgren said.
“There is also a strange trend happening throughout the robot developer world,” Nordgren added, “most of the developers are men and most of the robots they develop have a female persona. We try to stay true to the trend throughout the show.”
Alessandra Marconi leading rehearsal with Natasha McCandless, Evan Kasprzak, Claire Avakian, and Giorgia Vitali. Photo Credit: Cassie Nordgren
The venue itself has brewed a significant amount of interest. The site, Culture Hub, is a former multi-level nightclub that, after it’s invasion by Inwood Art Works, has been transformed into the efflorescent performance space.
“The space was formerly known as Cliff nightclub, and it was a multi-level space, complete with rigging for aerial silks and the biggest disco ball I have ever seen! Cliff was shut down by the state last year and has been dormant ever since.” Nordgren explained. “I was inspired by the idea of having dancers on two platforms and letting the audience occupy the space in between them.”
Inwood, the neighborhood hosting the festival, has been brought back into the headlines through both of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway successes— In The Heights, a musical that celebrated and investigated the culture of contemporary northern Manhattan, and the revolutionary war themed smash super-hit Hamilton. Thanks in part, however, to Nordgren and Aaron Simms, director of Inwood Art Works, the small cultural uptown hood has also been able to develop a loyal dance following as well.
“Inwood Art Works is an incredible organization,” Nordgren told DN. “Aaron began programming for the June pop-up in March and I believe we joined the line-up beginning of April; he’s made it his mission to provide spaces for uptown artists to create, share, and experience each other's work. This is the second pop-up produced by Inwood Art Works within the last year.”
Nordgren also spoke with Dance Network about what it’s been like teaming up with Alessandra Marconi, Hamilton's Roddy Kennedy, and the rest of her colleagues whose credits span from Broadway to So You Think You Can Dance.
“Roddy and I have worked together in the past so we were familiar with each other’s process, and bringing Ali into the mix has added a new dynamic that has only made the story stronger,” Nordgren gushed. “The cast has been a dream! Evan Kasprzak is leading the way, playing a socially-awkward computer hacker. His earthy love interest is played by the lovely Morgan Unger. We have two comedic TV personalities, played by Roddy Kennedy and Megan Ort, and Ali Marconi, Claire Avakian, and Giorgia Vitali, are playing Alexa. Our ensemble of three each bring something unique as well: Jacob Melvin, Nic Ranauro, and Natasha McCandless.”
As a Washington Heights resident, Nordgren is confident that the programming through IAW will continue into the future, and that her passion for creating dance uptown can further thrive.
“Dance, like music, is universal. It doesn't require the understanding of English or Spanish to be enjoyed,” Nordgren said. “Because our community uptown it is so diverse, art-forms without a language barrier are especially unifying.”
“One of the other blessings of creating uptown is that I don't have to take a 45-minute subway ride to and from work each day,” Nordgren jokingly added. “We are finally experiencing what it is like to be part of the artist's communities in midtown, downtown, and Brooklyn where venues exist only blocks from where we live.”
Alexa at the Culture Hub, performs Friday, June 29th at 9pm. Individual tickets are now available for $15, and can be purchased on Eventbrite or at the box office the day of the performance. For more information on Inwood Art Works check out .
Michael Mahany is a writer, host, and serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. Follow him on and .
*Cassie Nordgren wishes to thank executive producer of Inwood Art Works Aaron Simms, technical director Ken Coughlin, and all the donors who make IAW possible.