Kanami Kusajima, dance-painting in Washington Square.
In June, when it was still possible to imagine that life in New York would soon return to normal, a poster commissioned by city hall appeared on bus shelters and kiosks on city sidewalks. It showed a dancing young woman, her gaze lifted up to the sky, her long black hair flying straight through the air like jets of water gushing from the Washington Square Park fountain behind her. A caption read “NO STOPPING NEW YORK.”
The dancer, Kanami Kusajima, had been happy to let the mayor’s office use her image to promote its recovery efforts and was proud to serve as a symbol of resilience. Yet at the same time as it is literally the face of the city’s recovery, this same city is trying, despite the slogan, to stop its performances. Since wild parties took over Washington Square Park earlier this summer, drawing complaints from wealthy neighbors and the attention of tabloids, cops have been trying to enforce a rule banning amplified music. Kusajima uses a small speaker, plays an accompaniment of soft sounds (lots of classical piano and jazz), and performs in the afternoon, long before the holidays start. However, the police repeatedly ordered him to turn off the music. “Using my photo, they admitted that street performers are a big part of New York City,” she said in the park the other night, “and at the same time, they’re cracking down on us instead of us. to support.”
On August 19, a video of one of these encounters went viral. In the Instagram clip, she lashes out at a group of park cops and NYPD officers trying to end her performance. Pulling up the promotional poster on her phone, she points out that she has allowed the city to use her image for free. A crowd gathers, the cops let her do it, and Kusajima, annoyed, thanks the onlookers. “If I was alone they might give me a ticket or maybe have me arrested,” she says. (In an email, an NYPD spokesperson said that the penalty for playing amplified music is a summons, and that it is up to “every officer” to decide whether to impose it.)
A few days later, Kusajima sat down with me on the edge of the fountain. It was shortly after dark, around 9 p.m., one of the nicest evenings of summer, and the park was filled with all kinds of people: teenagers who passed by on scooters and skateboards, gamers. graying chess hunched over their games, a very tall young man in a newsboy cap and suspenders. A friend could be heard in the distance banging on a battery. Kusajima said she felt ambivalent about the attention her confrontation with the police had received (“What I want to do every day is spread positive energy”), but she was glad it got her. given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the city. buskers. Almost 3000 people signed a petition that she posted online; among other things, he asks the city to allow street performers to play amplified music below a specific decibel level at certain times.
Kusajima is 24 years old and is just over five feet tall. She wore short pants made of a lightweight fabric and a black and yellow t-shirt bearing the name of her high school dance club in Japan (“Rags”). Her hair was pulled back in a clip; when she loosens it to dance, it falls on her face and hangs down to her waist. (She performs under the pseudonym Let Hair Down.) She described her style as improvised. Most of the time, she twirls and swings in an exuberant trance; once, after the police made her turn off the music, she spent two hours slowly writhing on the floor in silence. She started taking modern dance lessons at the age of 6 in Yokohama. At 18, she left Japan to study dance at SUNY Purchase in Westchester. She was living there at the start of the pandemic. For the next four months, she rarely left campus. She took line dancing lessons, which “really drove me crazy,” she said. “I didn’t share my dance with anyone. I just dance to the same tables, chairs and walls every day, over and over again.
Last September, eager for human connection, she found her way to the park, where she met a Japanese painter called Pinocchio which evoked fantastic visions of women and dragons on large sheets of paper rolled on the floor like rugs. She began to collaborate with him, dancing while he painted. In November, when he returned to Japan, he encouraged her to continue without him. Since then, she has danced six days a week, performing in thunderstorms, snow and sweltering heat. When time permits, she dips her hands and feet in a bowl of black paint and dances on paper, covering one side then the other in abstract expressionistic spots and splashes. She says she’s made about 70 works this way.
We walked around the park, chatting with people she knew. “You are all over town! A man called. “That’s pretty cool!” Navil Corbetts, better known as Sail the dream, an Ecuadorian surrealist painter who wore a fake jaguar tooth on a necklace, told us that the police harassed him for posting prices for his paintings. A pair of officers stood under a nearby lamppost as we spoke. “They stay there for hours and hours,” Kusajima said. She paused to think about how it might feel. “I imagine it’s a little painful to see all these people who love art and come together and feel community and real humanity, but they can’t.”
“The problem isn’t them,” Corbetts said, okay. “They’re just following the rules. The people who are at the top, who have the money, who live here, they want to change things. But for six generations the park has been like this – how are you going to change it? On the other side of the fountain, about fifteen people ranging from college age to retirement were gathered around the drummer we had heard earlier. One was quite drunk. Other than that, the scene could have been staged by SS + K, the advertising agency that created the campaign promoting the New York takeover. A young black rapper was freestyle while an old white hippie strummed a guitar. A black man with a silver mustache greeted Kusajima warmly, holding his hands as he sang the chorus of “My Girl”. Kusajima released her hair from the clip and began to bounce from foot to foot, swinging her arms.
Then the cops appeared. A lieutenant in a white shirt said the music had to stop; the mayor had recently instituted a curfew in the parks at 10 p.m. The drummer hit a cymbal in protest. There were shouts of “Fuck you, police” and “Let them play”. The man who had serenaded Kusajima addressed the lieutenant. – I have a question for you, he said. “Why are you targeting musicians? You have bikes crossing here, skateboards crossing here. You only target musicians. You are not fair.
The lieutenant did not recognize the question. Standing with his thumbs hanging from the front pockets of his shirt, he waited for the drummer to put down his chopsticks. Then he turned and walked away. ” You go away ? The singer asked, his voice rising. “At least respect me as a man enough to answer my question.”
The lieutenant turned around. “I’m not walking away,” he said.
“I’m not a piece of land, man,” the singer said. “I asked you a reasonable and logical question. I have a degree in computer science.
The lieutenant shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t make the rules,” he said. He turned and walked away, this time definitely. The singer said: “He didn’t answer the question.”
It was getting late and Kusajima had to return home to Bushwick. Lingering near a few maple trees, she pointed out that Washington Square had once been the potter’s field – a cemetery for poor New Yorkers, whose bones remain buried under the park to this day. She had learned it from a street performer who rolls an upright piano in the park a few times a week. “He said to me, ‘Think about it. All of these trees feed on them – their bodies, their souls. ‘ She stopped. “I really think it makes sense that this park is so special, unique and magical. I feel this indescribable energy. It’s literally coming from the basement and the trees and all that environment, and I get all this energy from the story, and it comes out of my body when I dance.