Before the U.S. premiere of Alexis Blake’s “Crack Nerve Boogie Swerve” on Tuesday, they were handing out earplugs on the High Line in Lower Manhattan. At the elevated park’s 14th Street covered passage, you could choose how close to a bank of subwoofers you wanted to sit. Something loud and wild was about to happen, it seemed — an expectation heightened when a dancer entered carrying a hammer and began whacking a pane of glass.
Blake is a young American artist who lives in Amsterdam, where her work, which blurs the line between installation and performance, has started to receive attention and awards. With “Crack Nerve,” her first piece to be shown in New York, she uses glass and breakage as emblems of strength and fragility. Throughout the hourlong performance, four dancers move, and sometimes strike, panes of glass mounted on wheeled metal bases.
As symbolism, that’s not exactly fresh, so execution is all, and the first action on Tuesday proved unfortunately telling: After the third or fourth hit, the glass cracked a bit, but it didn’t shatter. Perhaps this was meant to convey resilience (and concern for the performers’ safety), but it read as theatrical timidity. “Crack Nerve” was disappointingly tame.
Dressed in sneakers and athletic wear altered (by Elisa van Joolen) with cutout holes or transparent patches, like cellophane windows on envelopes, the all-female local cast traded a shallow sampling of dance styles. A rudimentary time step from tap jumbled with B-girl freezes and some supported pirouettes and leaps from ballet. The dancers locked into clunky unison — posing, pointing, making fists, shadowboxing, hissing, yelling. They shook and flailed and wrestled.
It was all forced and unpersuasive, both the floor-pounding aggression and the periodic shows of solidarity and mutual care. It reminded me a little of the wild, rough, mixed-style work of Abby Zbikowski, but without the commitment and rhythmic sense. Rumbling bass and sub-bass in tracks composed by mobilegirl and augmented by the sound artist Stefanie Egedy couldn’t make up for the lack of power and momentum in the choreography.
A mid-performance power failure didn’t help. But the percussionist Sofia Borges did. Throughout the work, her drumming with mallets on glass was often the most engaging activity, visually and aurally. At one point, she was surrounded by glass panes. Beating on the walls of her see-through prison from the inside, she worked up an intricate drum solo that sounded like muffled gongs or a cracked carillon. She made music of the metaphor, and for once, it resonated.
As for the dancers, they laid the glass panes on a floor mat and performed would-be cathartic solos atop them in tap shoes, crampons and cleats. Again, this was brittle and weakly allegorical, a lot of grunting and stomping to make a few cracks. Marissa Brown — the most striking dancer of the night, electric in flashes of hip-hop articulation — had the final word, gliding on the glass with a welcome hint of inwardness. As she exited, there came a bass boom that made the audience jump — too little, too late.
Through Thursday at the High Line; thehighline.org.