The precious description of this event, a centerpiece of the annual monthlong Red Bull Music Academy Festival, prompted both an eye-roll and a “Holy crap I can’t miss that!” Based around Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” one of the best albums of 2016, this performance at the Guggenheim (you know, the circular Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum next to Central Park that Will Smith chased the cephalopod around in “Men in Black”) was described as “an interdisciplinary performance piece and meditation on themes from ‘A Seat at the Table’ that incorporates movement, installation, and experimentally reconstructed musical arrangements.” Attendees were asked to dress all in white. We had to surrender our phones at the door.
But lofty goals and artistic ambition are genius if they work, and while Solange’s “interdisciplinary performance piece and meditation” was a bit uneven and at times a little silly, when it coalesced and her vision snapped into focus, it was stunning.
The performance took place on the main floor of the rotunda, with the audience either sitting on the floor or leaning over the edges of the building’s circular balconies. Nearly everyone was, indeed, dressed in white, many in seriously fly outfits, and actually blended in beautifully with the mostly-white Guggenheim surfaces. One of the museum’s famed Calder mobiles hung overhead, its vivid Kandinskys were visible from the floor. The musicians — barefoot and dressed in tracksuit-type outfits in bold colors — set up under three large, simple sculptures (an orb, a circle and an angled rectangle).
They started off with a blaring instrumental called “Scales” that at times recalled the second side of David Bowie’s “Low,” then Solange, her two singers and eight dancers strode purposefully in a line down the circular balconies to the performance area and, after a series of stiff, synchronized movements, bending and dipping and arm extensions, launched into“Rise.” Facial expressions of sphinxlike serenity and stillness seemed to be the move.
The show progressed like that through several reinterpretations of songs from the album, but in the middle of the set Solange loosened up and began moving more freely and free-form, at one point wandering into the crowd, singing into some dude’s face, sitting down next to another. For all its deadpan seriousness, the show was not without humor: during “Mad” all of the musicians yelled together at the top of their lungs; a 14-piece horn section playing from three levels of the balcony stood up when playing their parts, then ducked down out of sight when they finished, like characters from a children’s TV show.
The performance came to a climactic finale with an extended version of “Don’t Touch My Hair,” which is when the vision truly came together: Around 80 dancers marched in line down the balconies, walking at the front of the stage in opposing synchronized lines that overlapped visually; up in the balconies, the horn section marched back and forth in profile. The effect was like a moving human collage. The song continued as the people onstage gradually marched off, but Solange kept going, dancing wildly, rolling around on the floor and kicking, smiling as if she was having the time of her life. At least part of it was probably relief: She’d just pulled off a vastly complicated hour-long performance for the second time that day (a matinee performance had been added earlier in the week). She beamed at the rapturous applause she received from the crowd, and even came down for a curtain call and a long speech thanking the Guggenheim, Red Bull, her many collaborators and the crowd for coming.
“Two days ago, this show was a hot-ass, funky-ass mess,” she said. “And I was like, why am I doing this? Trying to direct 100 black bodies and a horn section?” But she did, and while there were some bumps, there’s also the argument that when something ambitious is perfect, you’re not trying hard enough. And as the white-clad audience slowly filed out through the revolving doors and emerged to see the sun setting over Central Park, it felt like the show was still going on and we were still part of it.