“Can I touch you?” asked a young brunette woman in a black polo shirt, taking my hand and leading me into the cavernous main space of the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens. Around us, about a dozen individuals in identical attire paired up with audience members. We made small talk for a few minutes, until she broke off the conversation. “Sorry, I have to go do something for my job,” she said, as her colleagues murmured similar statements. Suddenly, the black-shirted performers were dancing in unison before us, performing a sequence of simple, controlled movements reminiscent of the choreography in early 1990s hip-hop videos. They moved mechanically, like marionettes conducted by invisible strings.
This was the introductory sequence of Authority Figure (May 20-22), an evening-length performance at the Knockdown Center directed by Monica Mirabile and Sarah Kinlaw. The event, featuring more than one hundred and fifty performers and collaborators, spread across the 50,000-square-foot former glass factory and its industrial grounds. Conceived by Mirabile and Kinlaw as “a social psychology experiment that uses choreography, sound and installation to elicit emotional response from the audience,” the performance comprised fourteen different vignettes on the themes of obedient relationships, from the familial to the pedagogical to the political. One point of departure was the Milgram experiments of the 1960s, wherein participants administered what they thought were life-threatening electrical shocks to actors when prodded by an authority figure. Another was the continued and escalating violence against racial and sexual minorities.