Events at the River to River Festival are like advertisements for the charms of Lower Manhattan. They tend to take place at historical sites you might otherwise neglect, or outside, between tall buildings and the water, refreshed by sea breezes. Even as the merits of the works vary, the settings are consistently rewarding.
Strange, then, for people wishing to see Cori Olinghouse’s “Grandma,” one of three dance works in the first weekend of this year’s 10-day festival, to be directed to a nondescript office building on Maiden Lane. Strange to show your ID to a security guard, take an elevator to the second floor and line up outside a room in an ordinary hallway. Strange because so unspectacular, so unspecific. This setting could have been anywhere.
And yet what awaited inside the room — adjacent to the offices of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which presents the festival — was highly specific: the hidden domain of a hoarder. In this corner, a heap of Wonder Bread packages; over there, a thorough collection of laundry detergent bottles. And in the middle, near a pile of videotapes, an old TV and bags of cheese curls, a person.
This person, dressed in pink, was presumably Grandma: a version of Ms. Olinghouse’s late grandmother, played by Martita Abril. Soon, Ms. Olinghouse also appeared: a less easily identifiable figure, in a red jumpsuit and a yellow wig, running around like a demented mime.
Nothing that these two mute women did for the next 40 minutes was as striking or thought-through as the setup. When Ms. Abril wandered amid audience members with an extension cord, looking for a socket to plug it into, the image was at once comic, tragic and unintentionally emblematic of performances that never quite turned on.
Similarly, as she turned the dial of the TV to find nothing but static, the sadness of the moment was self-reflexive. George Michael songs inspired a funny pelvic twitch, and Ms. Olinghouse harnessed some wild energy by taping to herself a kiddie pool in the shape of a flamingo, yet the channel never really changed. Handing out some of the Twinkies amassed in the fridge was generous, to be sure, but not nearly as generous as more substantive action would have been.
As a setting, Federal Hall, where Enrico D. Wey performed his solo “silent::partner,” offers a lot more resonance. Yet this work was another case of artistic intelligence concentrating in setup rather than follow-through.
At first, Mr. Wey situated his viewers around the balcony of the majestic rotunda, looking down on him as he very slowly edged backward toward a web of strings connecting the balcony to two suitcase-sized speakers in the center. Later, when he moved the speakers, the strings moved, too, sliding into new cat’s cradle patterns.
None of these patterns, though, had a legible significance. And everything else — the ruffled skirt around Mr. Wey’s shoulders that concealed his face, his elegant yet broken motions, the unintelligible voice emanating from the speakers and Mr. Wey’s own mournful vocalizing — contributed to a private and inscrutable ritual.
A book handed out after the performance, in which Mr. Wey has arranged textual fragments of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, only added to the obscurity. You could search for meaning in the gaps and absences. You could look for it in the work’s end, when viewers followed Mr. Wey into the basement beneath the rotunda, and watched him circle a pillar, unraveling cable from it onto his body and stumbling in the entanglement. But none of this was as powerful as the accompanying sound, the rumble of the speakers through the floor above: an unforgettable sensation, whatever it meant.
Catherine Galasso’s “Of Granite and Glass,” on the grand scalloped staircase of the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place, was much more straightforward in its invocation of place and past. After the four main performers, all dressed in green, had walked up and down the staircases, posing like pedestrians and tourists, one was handed a microphone to recite a potted history of the Winter Garden.
Along with the basics — the space was designed by César Pelli, constructed in 1988 — the history lingered on the prehistory. Before this was a luxury mall, it was the shore. Or, in the words of the slogan from the 1968 French uprising that Ms. Galasso quotes: “Under the pavement lies the beach.”
This is, as the script says, “a beautiful sentiment.” But in the hands of Ms. Galasso and her young, eager performers, green in more than one way, it turned jejune. Basic routines spread out near and far without inspiration, bland enough that when a group of fake hecklers showed up, I was on their side.
Alas, instead of disrupting the party, they joined it, sending Slinkies and beach balls cascading down the stairs. This dance of the people wasn’t an uprising, nor was it compelling art. It was just cute.