Fifteen sculptural horses stare at the center of Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall from either end, confronting commuters in the middle with arresting, eyeless stares. Their colorful raffia bodies rest on sawhorses, allowing viewers to study their black fabric faces, which are embroidered with exotic designs. They came alive for the first time yesterday, their shaggy hides donned by dancers who swirled and twirled, stomped and shook, in wild blurs of bubblegum pinks, blues, greens, yellows and browns to the booming beat of drums.
The herd of equine Soundsuits—as their designer, artist Nick Cave terms them—will be on view through March 31, performing twice a day, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The show marks Mr. Cave’s first commission from Creative Time, which has collaborated with MTA Arts for Transit before (filling Vanderbilt Hall with inflatable work by Takashi Murakami and a carpet piece by Rudolf Stingel, on separate occasions). The hall originally served as a waiting room for travelers on their way out of town, but it has become a destination in and of itself. The rosy marble room has been the site of squash tournaments, holiday fairs, private events and art installations, perhaps none more arresting than its current offering, Mr. Cave’s “Heard NY.”
The handsome space began filling up as early as 10 a.m. on Monday, as passersby, sensing something was going to happen, began to paused and watch. A small army of volunteers (there are 40 for every performance) milled around the herd’s two roped enclosures while musicians tested out their elegant harp and enormous drums.
Sunday’s dress rehearsal left the floor littered with strands of multicolor raffia, shaken free by the fringy suits. “At the end of the week, this will look like a horse stable,” said Mr. Cave, who contrasted with his colorful creations in an all-black ensemble broken only by bright harlequin patches on his otherwise black sneakers.
Soon the dancers—students from the Ailey School where Mr. Cave once studied—emerged and began taking the horses apart in pairs, lifting raffia layers off the sawhorses and helping one another wear them like long skirts. (An excerpt of one performance is below.) The crowd giggled as the young dancers transformed into half-horses, one becoming the front and one the back. One dancer resembled a blue and yellow Cousin It by the time she was fully costumed. She lifted up the coffee-colored skirt hanging from her partner’s animal head and nestled under it, becoming the haunches.
Assistants made the rounds, adjusting the outfits like handmaidens straightening so many bustles. They retreated, and there the horses stood, fully formed. Then they began to move. Barely at first, a few pawed the ground or shook their flanks restlessly, the noise from the swishing straw-like costumes breaking the silence. A note from the harp and they were off, some shuffling, some swaggering around the enclosure. A proud-looking saffron horse flicked its mane and broke into a jaunty trot while one with black and white spots nuzzled another. Their paths were random at first, but then became a single-file procession around the perimeter. Children formed most of the front row of viewers and they strained their tiny arms to touch passing muzzles and legs.
Suddenly, the drums began, filling the echoing hall with big, powerful booms. The dancers responded, breaking apart so the heads and haunches could dance separately. They threw their arms up and spun around in unison. The former back legs of each horse dropped to the floor in unison, forming shaggy piles that barely betrayed a human being inside at all, before jumping up again and moving around wildly. It was like being in the middle of a Caribbean ritual or medieval carnival conceived by Dr. Seuss.
Then, just as suddenly, the drums ceased and the melodic harp music alone could be heard as the dancers found their partners, reformed whole horses and shambled back to their original spots.
Thunderous applause broke as the dancers emerged and piled their costumes back on the saw horses. Though one couldn’t quite see Pegasus on the painted celestial ceiling of the Main Concourse, he was no doubt cheering along.
It’s truly difficult to imagine being cynical or even nonplussed by the performance. Strangers turned to one another, exchanging unblinking, nodding smiles, acknowledging their shared experience. The hall echoed with noise quite unlike the sounds filling other corridors of the station. Instead of rollaway wheels clicking, high heels clacking, ticket purchases and timetable queries, the room resounded with a chorus of enthusiastic comments.
“It was amazing, wonderful!” said one young woman visiting from Norway. She and her friend were headed home the next day, but had been planning on seeing the show since she first spotted an ad in the subway two months ago. “I would love to be one of those horses,” she said.
A 12-year-old girl accompanied by her father felt similarly, but like a true Upper East Sider, had her preferences, telling us she would be, “The top of the horse. I’m not going to be the butt.”
An MTA employee began sweeping the shed raffia back under the rope, and the crowd resumed its own crossings through the terminal. They shuffled and stopped, turned and pushed forward, carefully and quickly working their way around one another.