And restrictions on audience size weren’t such a handicap, since much of what Siyanko wanted to present was, in her words, “very niche.” The pandemic also accelerated a trend: Audiences already attracted to this kind of work — and the artists who make it — were moving to the area. (Chatham is a 20-minute drive from the towns of Hudson and Catskill.) Donors accrued and gave more. The PS21 budget increased by about 50 percent, Siyanko said, with a large surplus in 2021.
This might sound like cultural gentrification, but Siyanko is also committed to low ticket prices and accessibility without pandering. The Pathways events, in particular, are designed as points of entry, leading into PS21’s campus and its more adventurous programming.
Pathways began in 2020 with unconventional dance classes and with the chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound scattered across the grounds performing John Luther Adams’s “Ten Thousand Birds.” “Kids loved it,” Siyanko said, which was also true of the Montreal acrobats cavorting in the trees of nearby Crellin Park in 2021. Some Pathways events, like that one, happen off-campus, engaging with schools and local arts organizations. Others have brought local students to PS21, in one instance to rehearse and perform with the experimental flutist Claire Chase, and in another to take part in theater camp with the Wooster Group.
Onikeku fits right in with the Pathways project (down to the theater-camp trust exercises he tucked into “Middle Ground.” In an interview before “Middle Ground,” he explained how, while growing up in Nigeria, he gravitated to contemporary dance as a mode in which “you can have your own ideas,” and how, while dancing in France, he ended up at École Nationale Supérieur des Arts du Cirque, studying contemporary circus that reminded him of the total theater of Yoruba tradition.
From the start of his career, he modeled himself on the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti as a consciousness-raising artist. In a series of solos, Onikeku explored philosophical ideas: the isolation of exile, the difference between history and the past, the body as a storehouse of generational memory. Although he had success in Europe, appearing at the prestigious Avignon Festival when still in his 20s, he grew “appalled by the dictatorship of the art market,” he said, the cycle of producing and touring and producing again.