Jérôme Bel, Ballet (New York), 2015. Rehearsal view, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, November 1, 2015. From left to right: Madison Ferris, Etienne Servaes, Shelton Lindsay aka Professor Cupcake, Megan LeCrone, Hector Castro, Alex Clayton, Moriah Evans, Anne Gridley, Casey Furry, Frog, Hashiel Castro, Charles Krezell, and Chai Smith. Photo: Paula Court.
FOR HIS PERFORMA 15 COMMISSION, Jérôme Bel has created a compact work in an unwieldy delivery system: The thirty-five-minute Ballet (New York) is being presented in three spaces around Manhattan this month—Marian Goodman Gallery, the Martha Graham Studio, and the theater at El Museo del Barrio—so that, per the program, it “plays with how these environments each frame and shape the ways we see and ‘feel’ dance.” (Amusingly, the Graham Center, a modern-dance shrine that now occupies Merce Cunningham’s fabled digs on Bethune Street, gets labeled “a downtown dance studio.”)
Alas, for this contextual experiment, Marian Goodman is the only container in which I got to experience Bel. But as it turns out, the gallery was my third frame for ballet in the first week of November, following Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg’s collaboration at Performa’s opening in Saint Bartholomew’s Church and Troy Schumacher’s BalletCollective at NYU’s Skirball Center. The treatment of dancers and audience members, and their spatial (political) relationships to each other, was, if not always radically different, trenchantly revealing.
Another Performa commission, Hallberg and Vezzoli’s Fortuna Desperata is a proto-ballet confection in keeping with the biennial’s Renaissance theme, featuring Deda Cristina Colonna’s reconstructions of fifteenth-century Italian social dances (she was, tellingly, listed as a “Choreographer,” while Hallberg and Vezzoli were billed as “Artists.” Unclear to me, still, is what exactly Vezzoli did…). Tickets could be had for $250 or, if you wanted in to the reception after, $500. And just in case, after being crammed into the holding pen of a lobby, you were beginning to doubt your monetary outlay (or if, like me, you were comped but still depressed to be on Park Avenue, on a Sunday night no less), as you filed into the darkened church there, spotlit in all his glory, was a body-painted, near-naked Hallberg. Vitruvian Man in a dancebelt (by Fabio Zambernardi for Prada, thank you very much).
BalletCollective, Invisible Divide, 2015. Performance view, New York University Skirball Center, New York, November 4, 2015. Ashley Laracey, Meagan Mann, Lauren King, and Claire Kretzschmar. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
As the audience scurried to grab the unreserved seating on risers ringing the square stage, Hallberg rotated to give all a view: Here was dancer as spectacle and specimen, both exalted and abject, his ass quite literally on display for all to snap and send to their social-media stream of choice. Compare this opening view to BalletCollective’s Invisible Divide, in which the dancers chatted and warmed up on a stripped stage while their public trickled in to assigned seats ($25–$75). In this program of new and recent works, Schumacher played with ideas around partnering, virtuosity, and nonhierarchical communities, occupying a terrain of innocence and questioning that, within ballet’s buttoned up halls, felt radical at times. Here, as in other efforts by Schumacher, a New York City Ballet dancer and rising choreographic talent, the point was demystification: Ballet is extraordinarily hard work done by ordinary individuals, who onstage edge ballet toward explorations of sexual equality and non-heteronormative defaults, and in the program notes offer sweetly earnest answers to questions about their dreams and regrets.
And compare this again to Ballet (New York), with its makeshift, uncomfortable seating ($25 a pop, unless you qualify for a $15 student or “visionary” ticket), no bodies to look at save our own and those in Jeff Wall’s photographs, which trade in many of the same theatrical/anti-theatrical, larger-than-life/human-scale, accessible/critical modes as Bel’s performances. The point here is Art, and The Author: his gaze, his values, his agenda (his his his, inevitably). When the performers come out, one by one, they execute Bel’s assignments with a minimum of staged fanfare and a maximum of personal flourish—pirouettes, waltzing, improvisation, the moonwalk, bows—as best they can with their varied training and abilities. Shits and giggles on the surface camouflage Bel’s continued interest in pinning butterflies to velvet, here playing up the fraught freak show concept of collecting and juxtaposing intensely different body types—a City Ballet soloist, a woman in a wheelchair, a hirsute man listed as “Shelton Lindsay aka Professor Cupcake.” (It’s telling that Bel eventually pulled the plug on a biographical collaboration Hallberg sought with him in 2007 because, in Hallberg’s words, “there wasn’t enough conflict in the work” for Bel’s liking.)
As with Fortuna Desperata, those who are “only” dancing don’t merit program bios, and have committed to a minimum of rehearsals—the tradition of a maker-doer bond that a choreographer like Schumacher is steeped in is not, here, the point, so that it is the individual who lets you see the step and its conventions as much, if not more so, than the step revealing the individual. What are the essential elements of a pirouette? Schumacher and his dancers, all City Ballet colleagues, have a definitive answer to which they apply variations, seeking present-day wiggle room within history; Bel, I think, starts with the wiggle room so as to home in on the aspects of history, and its present-day ramifications, he wants most to dissect.
And what does Fortuna Desperata seek? Oh, reader. Hallberg is a force for great, great good in the ballet world, and I want to declare him on the side of the angels. But this frothy and coy concoction is an inadequate vehicle for his dance intelligence (and a cruelty to the ill-prepared performers, especially the men, placed alongside him). If he’s going to save ballet from itself, he’ll have to do it without the likes of Vezzoli at his side.
Francesco Vezzoli and David Hallberg’s Fortuna Desperata ran Sunday, November 1 at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in New York. BalletCollective’s Invisible Divide ran November 4 and 5 at New York University’s Skirball Center. Jérôme Bel’s Ballet (New York) ran November 6 and 7 at Marian Goodman Gallery; it continues November 14 and 15 at Martha Graham Studio Theater and November 19 at El Museo del Barrio.
THE PSYCHOSIS OF SISTERHOOD never goes out of style, I suppose. Two recent performances feature characters who are sisters—each other’s closest and most cherished rivals—and yet strangely at the heart of each of these productions is a kind mourning or meditation on theatrical space. Why?
Basil Twist’s latest production, Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds, was commissioned for the one hundredth anniversary of Abrons Playhouse, founded in 1915 by sisters Alice and Irene Lewisohn to give a home and audience to avant-garde theater. Part of the absolute delight of the show is its celebration-cum–send up of a certain history of New York’s avant-garde—a cheeky tribute to the oddball and kinky nature of thespian visions of yore, apparently no less absurd or luminous than those of today.
Propelled by the magnetic forces of Joey Arias and Julie Atlas Muz, Sisters’ Follies is—at face value—a ghost story. Abrons’s founding sisters Alice and Irene (Arias and Muz, respectively) appear before us as spirits floating above the stage to tell us their story and reenact their proudest moments at the Playhouse. Raven haired and kohl-eyed, Arias is the vain actress Alice, a lighter, more loving version of Baby Jane. With a halo of blond curls and a cherubic smile, Muz plays the sweet, enthusiastic Irene, a dancing minx in angel’s clothing (or lack thereof). Between numbers, the two appear to narrate the story of the theater, bicker over the spotlight, later making up in the name of art—while time and time again bringing the house down with a few choice pieces from their repertoire.
In “Jepthah’s Daughter,” we see Arias-as-Alice playing the young girl who sacrificed herself so that her father would be successful in battle. (Warning: Audiences who giggle at mentions of the girl’s youth will get the stink eye from Arias.) Wearing a sparkling headdress and gown and standing on a pyre while silk flames wave all around, Arias sings a song of love and fate that dissolves into a frenzied performance of “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Muz-as-Irene shines as Carmelis in “The Kairn of Kordiwen,” her expressionistic, interpretive dance of a young woman who must choose between her love of the warrior Mordred and her belief in the Druid goddesses. (Roll over Mary Wigman, if only to make room in your grave.) Dressed in Machine Dazzle’s mesmerizing creations, Alice and Irene present us with other gems too, including “The Queen’s Enemies,” in which we watch Cleopatra drown a stage full of Egyptians, and “Salut au Monde,” a tribute to Walt Whitman, which was apparently misunderstood by audiences at the time. (I’m not sure we understood it better now, although we undoubtedly laughed harder.)
At first, it may seem merely incidental or sweet that Sisters’ Follies was commissioned to honor the Abrons’s centenary. It isn’t only that—at least, not at this moment. With the ribbon freshly cut on the new St Ann’s Warehouse, and P.S.122 reopening its renovated space next summer, there is growing concern that these and other shifts in scale will affect the work born in this city. Opportunities for incubation and development seem to be slipping away; so does a certain ground-level support of New York’s performance community. While every New Yorker gets caught in real-estate talk, the conversation is especially tender for performance spaces. It’s also always ongoing.
In mid-July at the Kitchen, the sublime and gutting reproduction of Jeff Weiss and Richard C. Martinez’s And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid reminded audiences that once upon a time, plays could be presented in storefront theaters that doubled as the artists’ home. DANCENOISE’s presentation at the Whitney later that same month devoted quite a bit of installation space in homage to the place that launched their work: King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, which once stood on the corner of Avenue A and Seventh Street. In July 2014, The Incubator Arts Project closed its doors at Saint Mark’s Church, previously the home of Richard Foreman’s essential Ontological-Hysteric Theater. Calculating these and other losses against the gains of grander, bigger theaters is not a bid for nostalgia. It is a reminder that performance has been heartiest and most potent when given the proper space to grow.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Basil Twist’s genius—his uncanny eye for the life forces hidden inside the material world—felt even more essential the night I saw the play. He breathed life not only onto the stage but also into the house of the Abrons, transforming the theater into the third star of the show. If these walls could talk, Twist seemed to wink. Thanks to his crack team of creative collaborators—Poe Saegusa (lighting), A-Key (sound), and Daniel Brodie (video)—they did exactly that. We were surrounded by spirits, delighted and giddy. Best of all, the stagecraft was flawless not because of Broadway-sized budgets, but because of the ingenuity of all involved. In other words, it was a show that only could have happened Downtown.
Slightly more uptown, at the New Museum, writer/director/choreographer Jack Ferver and artist Marc Swanson presented the installation/performance Chambre as part of this year’s Crossing The Line Festival. According to Ferver, the piece “examines the themes of greed, celebrity, class disparity, capital “O” otherness, and the violence that comes from these issues internally and externally.” (Phew!) To achieve all of this, Ferver whips Jean Genet’s The Maids together with excerpts from Lady Gaga’s 2013 deposition from a lawsuit brought against her by a former personal assistant alleging unpaid overtime. Also woven into Chambre are Ferver’s own texts as well as select lines from the trial testimony of Christine Lapin, one of the two sisters who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter in 1933, the event that inspired Genet’s play. Unfortunately, with arrows aimed in so many directions, it’s not a surprise this piece misses the bulls-eye.
Ferver, alongside Jacob Slominski, perform as Christine and Léa, the sisters who escape their work as maids by playing at a fantasy in which they become their mistress, go to Paris, and live a life of luxury. Theirs is a folie à deux fueled by the combustible forces of oppression, desire, and shaming. Yet when their mistress arrives (Michelle Mola), lip syncing her lines in a sing-song style and flitting about like an ADD trust-fund Tinkerbell, we understand that her delusions of grandeur are no less toxic and absurd than those of the sisters’. It’s that wealth gives her the power to materialize them.
Ferver rounds out Genet’s story by performing as Lady Gaga accusing her former assistant of entitlement and ingratitude. As one might hope, the diva bequeathed us a superior record of her nastiness. “[She] got to take private planes, eat caviar, party with Terry Richardson all night, wear my clothes, ask YSL to send her free shoes without my permission, using my YSL discount without my permission.” Although Ferver’s delivery possesses just the right touch of acid, one’s fangs don’t have to be especially sharp to chew through pulp this juicy. “She thinks she’s just like the queen of the universe,” Ferver-as-Gaga hisses, “But in my work and what I do, I’m the queen of the universe every day.” Such is the pseudo-tragedy of the star: to be misunderstood by all of her subjects in a cosmos of one. A sign of our times: Gaga’s assistant never stabbed her or gouged her eyes out; she settled out of court. She also reportedly received a million dollar book deal to dish about her former boss, a brutal blow to a celebrity—a body that largely subsists on the largesse of its own fictions.
With so much possible flesh to flay, it’s disappointing Chambre only stabs at the surface. When a performer for whatever reason doesn’t feel the necessity or urgency to produce a text all his or her own, what sometimes happens is a grazing of source materials. Here Genet’s play hangs as outline and reference, carving what we might call (with a healthy dose of venom) “the safe space of literature.” The man who moved Jean-Paul Sartre to pen Saint Genet, a kind of treatise on the origins of genius, is used to lend gravity to the piece; Genet’s presence and labor are not repaid in kind. If Ferver, a truly charismatic performer with razor sharp comedic sensibilities, isn’t interested in diving more deeply into the texts of others, he should (and could) push his own ideas to the fore—and use the full force and focus of his talons without this dubious kind of permission.
He seems to know this too. At the end of the show, Ferver takes a moment to nibble the hands that feed him. “The monetization of performance is so scary,” he tells the New Museum audience, his voice remaining in the diva register. “It’s so ridiculous that I make what I make. My friends are worried about me because I can barely afford my health insurance and they are like, Why don’t you write a movie, you are so funny, and comedy really sells.” Projecting himself into a future LA lifestyle—“New York is so gross and totally inhospitable to artists now”—Ferver riffs on the benefits of creating confections from a city that has “so much space.” If this is how a performer is to survive—more space, less art?—ah me. As another deluded diva once said, Let them eat cake.
Basil Twist’s Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds runs through November 7th at Abrons Arts Center; Jack Ferver and Marc Swanson’s Chambre was installed and performed at the New Museum from September 23rd–October 4th.
Ieva Misevičiūtė performing in Sanya Kantarovksy’s “Apricot Juice” at Studio Voltaire.
WHEN THE DEVIL COMES TO MOSCOW, he puts on a vaudeville show.
At least, that was his M.O. in Mikhail Bulgakov’s mesmerizing The Master and Margarita, which was written in the prime purge period from 1928–1940, but could only be published in 1967. Dazzling and dense, the book splices a reverie on writer’s block, a defense of Pontius Pilate, and a razor-sharp critique of the early Soviet state—though to be fair, that last one writes its own jokes.
The novel opens with a kitsch-schilling poet and the director of the Writers Union in conversation at Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds. The city is slathered with an unseasonable heat, and the kiosk advertising cold beer has only apricot juice, so warm it’s starting to ferment. Artist Sanya Kantarovsky chose this scene as the point of departure for his ode to the novel, an exhibition titled “Apricot Juice” that opened in London’s Studio Voltaire this spring. The painter modeled the near-grotesque, cartoonish stances of his main characters on gesture-studies made of shape-shifter Ieva Misevičiūtė, who delivered an opening-night performance on a stage cut like the silhouette of a fat black cat, a nod to Behemoth, one of the devil’s more absurd accomplices in the novel.
After startling audiences with her linguistic triple-lutzes in Michael Portnoy’s 27 Gnoses, which premiered at Documenta 13 in 2012, Misevičiūtė has been honing her act through a series of solo performances and occasional curatorial forays (she helped craft the conceit for the “Mindaugas Triennial,” the 2012 edition of the Baltic Triennial). Her particular brand of sorcery is hard to pin down, alternately suggesting Butoh, cabaret, calisthenics, an open mic night at a comedy club, or an exorcism. Long and limber, her body wraps itself around snippets of recognizable choreography—a grand plié, a lock step—incrementally exaggerating the gestures until they have reached a point beyond slapstick. “Unproductive gymnastics,” she calls it. It might be worth noting that the artist spent her youth training to be a clown.
With its mix of sensuality, fantasy, and satire, Master and Margarita offered an ideal context for Misevičiūtė. Her act opened quietly, with the artist gliding through the crowd in a crimson-colored tunic, her ears painted to match. Once on stage, she slipped almost imperceptibly into the poses that inspired Kantarovsky’s paintings. Like the novel, there was no clear linear narrative, only a series of “bits” set to a soundtrack patched together from krautrock, NASA recordings of sound in space, and contemporary techno. Misevičiūtė moved in and out of the music, her body disconnecting with the jerky persistence of a wind-up-toy. For one bit, she tucked two long red poles into her sleeves, mimicking the expressive proportions in the paintings. Her body no longer appeared human, but rather like one of those windsock salesmen genuflecting over quickie car washes.
These kinds of contortions formed the heart of Lord of Beef, a performance Misevičiūtė premiered last year at LAXART and which has since traveled to Hauser & Wirth in Zurich, the Centre Pompidou, the Block Universe Performance Festival in London, and the Liste performance program curated by Eva Birkenstock. On Sunday, October 18, the piece will make its East Coast debut as part of the programming for the fourth edition of “Greater New York” at MoMA PS1.
Ieva Misevičiūtė, Lord of Beef, 2014. Performance views. Left: Centre Pompidou, Paris. Right: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London.
Lord of Beef opens with the artist taking the stage, all in black, with semi-translucent tights and a thick black stripe effectively voiding the space from her forehead to her nose. She addresses her audience directly, her voice pouring thick like that warm apricot juice: “Now I am going to do a series of impersonations for you.” Like her choreography, her impressions emerge from a kernel of recognizable reality—Slavoj Žižek’s sputtering proclamations, Putin’s all-purpose power stride, or Klaus Biesenbach’s hawk-eyed once-over of a room—then lunge into increasingly exaggerated riffs. The targets of her impersonations follow suit, veering more into comedic surrealism, à la “The Space Between the Anthropocentrism and Object-Oriented Ontology, Or Angelina Jolie Swimming in a Giant Bathtub,” or “I Don’t Need Friends, I’d Prefer Some Parents.” Huffing and snorting, the artist uses chewing-gum bubbles or manipulations of her tongue (based on a rare breed of Butoh) to further distort the shape her face, while her body lurches in and out of sync with the soundtrack.
Misevičiūtė’s efforts to obscure the legibility of her figure only amplify the audience’s awareness of her body. She applies a similar pressure on theatrical conventions. Her set is interrupted with the pantomime of a phone call, which the artist fields dutifully, casting pleading “forgive me” eyes at her audience as her invisible conversant appears to drone on and on. It is theater interrupting theater, with no attempt at artifice.
Master and Margarita ends with its main characters vanishing, leaving Moscow’s tongues flapping and the city’s only sane minds carted off to a suburban sanitarium. When the lights go out on Misevičiūtė, the audience is left in a similar pause, struggling to piece together what we’ve witnessed. Too slapstick to be genuine, too genuine to be satire, too unnerving to be empty-calorie entertainment – that’s the way it is in vaudeville?
Lord of Beef runs on October 18 at 3 PM as part of MoMA PS1’s Sunday Sessions, “The Cringe: Art, Anxiety and Performance: With Ieva Misevičiūtė & Rebecca Patek,” organized as part of Greater New York.
IT’S A FUNNY THING to spend five hours with something and not know how you feel about it. This is especially true when it’s someone else’s thing, that you have ostensibly, or so convention holds, been invited in to witness.
Sarah Michelson’s four-day tournamento took over the Walker Art Center’s William and Nadine McGuire Theater last week. I was in attendance for only the final hours on Sunday, starting with two-and-a-half hours of afternoon activities that began at 4 PM, followed by the last official show, which began at 7.
But “activities” isn’t quite right here, and neither is “show.” Better to leave out the categories for now and stick to observable details (and here I’m tempted to sub “facts” for “details,” but no):
Four main players enter the stage-as-arena at staggered times, representing their home states: Rachel Berman in red for Hawaii, John Hoobyar in green for Oregon, Jennifer Lafferty in blue for California (specifically, Southern California), Nicole Mannarino in yellow for Ohio. They are all on some spectrum from drawn to spent, save for Berman, who seems cloaked in protective youth. Each is flanked by a duo of young teamsters, often beautifully awkward, who sub on and off the floor, yelling “thank you” when they exit the stage at a heavy run, and otherwise bouncing, gesticulating, echoing, and keeping their eyes laser-beamed on their respective player as said player cycles through distinct but related steps and phrases, recognizable to those familiar with Michelson’s stew of Cunningham, ballet, yoga, athletics, yells, witchy hand gestures, and the like.
Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015. Photo: Gene Pittman.
The players are intensely, mostly inwardly focused, going over their movements again and again and again. At times they function like parentheticals in a space rendered visually and aurally chaotic by a plethora of video screens (showing hand-drawn portraits and myth-making “rehearsal” footage of those on stage), score cards, variously low and loud soul and disco, digital timers and scores, on-stage bleachers dotted with audience members, lighting equipment, a long black platform, the loud calls of scorekeepers, and Michelson’s trademark neon portraits. Three soigné judges—Madeline Wilcox, Danielle Goldman, and James Tyson—sit at a table stage left, calling out coded messages and evaluating according to recondite criteria.
Overseeing it all, her back to the tiered seating, is Michelson, a coach-as-god figure who from a table full of MacBooks and mixing consoles manipulates the music (and the videos?), voices color and play-by-play commentary, gives whispered consultations, and periodically, almost obscenely scream-growls “Let’s play!” into a gold microphone. She wears a black jumpsuit decorated with the “LIFE | DANCE | DEATH” Venn-diagram logo of The Bureau for the Future of Choreography, evoking an alternate-universe dance Olympics. The logo is a starkly humorous choice given the Bureau’s eschewal of individual ownership versus Michelson’s cult of authorship.
And, finally, there is a winner, a high-scorer. And it all ends abruptly a little after 9 PM, unceremoniously, predictably: We’re finished, you all do what you want, you watchers, this wasn’t for you in the first place.
There is much more to describe, but perhaps you get the picture. (Other maybe-helpful references: old time gladiators and their present-day reenactments such as The Hunger Games and American Gladiators, arcane sporting events full of hunched-over old men keeping obsessive box scores.) It’s pure theater, at its most alienating; dance-theater as the occasion for “pure” dance as Trojan Horse. Questions of agency and control and power sprawl messily throughout the theater, all the brutal hierarchies we like to ignore at our art spectacles, and I find myself thinking of Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty (2011), specifically as she interrogates consent, and the myriad condescensions of the audience member toward the performer: “The question of whether it is ever cruel to do unto someone what she would like you to do unto her—or at least what she has authorized having done unto her—remains alive.” I can’t tell if the stakes are way too high, or not nearly high enough. And I think that maybe I really hated tournamento, and that this (the hating) doesn’t matter. I stayed for all those hours… and so, really, what or who did I actually find loathsome in the end?
And this all leads me to Ralph Lemon: “I think the violence becomes part of what the agreement is about.”
That was Lemon reading the night after tournamento ended, as part of Scaffold Room: (Memory) Refraction #1, to mark the one-year anniversary of The Walker acquiring Scaffold Room. I don’t have the mandate right now to do any kind of justice to this Refraction, so I can only say that it makes breathing feel possible, and at the same time makes clear my unending grubby audience need to be seduced, and throws into stark illumination Michelson’s middle finger (which maybe, probably, is only my [mis]perception, revealing a more insidious need) on that front.
The Lemon–Michelson conversation has been in high gear for awhile now, some of it spinning off his invitation to have her present work as part of his “Some sweet day” series in 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art, with the not-so-secret nudge that participants consider the question “What is black music?” And, finally, Lemon’s Refraction that night was—I think I can claim this—still reverberating with Blackness and Nonperformance, the madly dizzying reading Fred Moten delivered at MoMA last Friday, in which consent and refusal and bodies and time swirled just out of (my) reach in his three-dimensional idea web. (Does it matter that both Lemon and Michelson, in Minneapolis, presented their muses [yes, that word] in moments of wild crying breakdown? Matter to what, to whom?)
And but so. The winner of tournamento is Hawaii: 4135 inscrutable points to Ohio’s 4107, despite Ohio’s sublime incandescent off-the-railsness, her T-shirt and short-shorts (so many ways for short shorts to fit and gorgeously not fit so many asses) soaked through, her skin glistening and nipples reading ever-more-clearly through the drenched fabric. If there is a winner, it follows, there must be a loser—but that’s in the theater that is sports, not art. Here we’re all left with something else entirely. If there can be any agreement, is it that (ultimately? for now?) that’s what it’s all about, for all of us, this pursuit of the elusive something else? To end, with apologies, with the inevitable: Let’s play.
Sarah Michelson, tournamento, 2015. Performance view, Walker Art Center, September 25, 2015.
HERE IT IS: the annual highly selective, totally subjective, goddammit-I-only-remembered-the-best/weirdest/awfullest-thing-after-it-was-published, New York fall performance preview. Trust me, this hurts me more than it hurts you.
I decided to take a different tack and focus as much as possible on smaller and out of the way things, because, you know, the city is going to be taken over by Performa 15, which is coming up November 1, and this year has the humble theme of the Renaissance. And yes, the Crossing the Line festival is great (Miguel Gutierrez’s complete trilogy at New York Live Arts, and Adrian Heathfield and André Lepecki convene “Afterlives: The Persistence of Performance” in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art.) And yeah, Marina Abramović returns to the Park Avenue Armory to do something about some guy named Bach.
1. But have you heard about the choreographer Anneke Hansen, or the Irondale Center in Fort Greene? She’ll present her new work 2hymn vb December 2–5, and I think her delicately and carefully layered phrasework would be perfect for the elegantly aging theater. Hansen comes from a strong New York tradition of nuanced movement. She’s worth paying attention to.
2. Speaking of New York lineages: “Sundays on Broadway” is a treasure-trove series curated by Cathy Weis at WeisAcres, her loft in SoHo in one of those buildings still occupied by artists, like some sort of nature preserve. This season’s lineup is beyond, including showings by Juliette Mapp, Jodi Melnick, Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, and Weis. Dance royalty Carolyn Brown (once of Merce Cunningham) and Sara Rudner (once of Twyla Tharp) host an evening on October 18. And there will be screenings of films by Charles Atlas, Robert Whitman, Léonide Massine (!), and Yasuko Yokoshi.
3. Yokoshi’s film Hangman Takuzo plays a part in Zero One, which will be presented at Danspace Project September 24–26. Yokoshi is not to be missed (and tends to sell out, act fast), but the rest of Danspace’s fall is largely populated with less established figures (uh, ok, there is this collaboration December 17–19 between Meredith Monk and Anne Waldman, which, my god—yesss), such as Mina Nishimura and Jean Butler, both singular performers. Their works will be in conversation with intense histories: butoh in Nishimura’s case, and Irish dance for Butler.
4. Butler has been slowly easing her way into choreography, along the way collaborating with experienced makers like Tere O’Connor and Jon Kinzel. The woman has impeccable taste, and this fall you can accomplish a hat trick, seeing The Goodbye Studies by O’Connor at The Kitchen December 2–12, and COWHAND CON MAN by Kinzel October 21–24 and 28–31 at Gibney Dance. I hope you’ve heard of O’Connor; Kinzel’s public profile is lower, but his art is sublime. He’s one of many fine artists being supported by Gibney this year.
Anneke Hansen Dance, ²hymn vb, 2015. Promotional image. Austin Selden and Sam Hanson. Photo: Matt Harvey.
5. I’m not always so up on The Joyce Theater’s programming, but October 13–25 will see the seventieth anniversary season of the Limón Dance Company, with performances by a range of guest artists. This is American modern-dance bedrock (hey museums, what gives, not sexy enough for you?), and while some of the work shows its years, it remains deeply powerful. The Joyce is also presenting Twyla Tharp’s fiftieth anniversary (performances will be at the David H. Koch Theater). Limón and Tharp changed the course of things. Respect must be paid.
6. Ok, here’s something at the other end of the spectrum from respectable modern dance: the performance art gallery Grace Exhibition Space. Curated by the artist Whitney V. Hunter and informed by ideas of the artist as mythmaker, “The Sphinx Returns” runs from September 19–December 19. I love the opening act, the Afro-Futurist duo The Illustrious Blacks, but many of the artists Hunter has chosen are unknown to me—and what’s not to love about that?
7. I didn’t know much about Joshua Lubin-Levy when I was invited to attend his Fred Herko symposium at New York University’s performance studies department, where he is a PhD student. What a hot mess that event was, and I am now a Lubin-Levy fan. Here are two things he’s up to this fall: Curating “Not Not,” a free back-to-school evening September 12 at the Center for Performance Research, featuring performances, readings, and refreshments with Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory. And on September 26 and 27 at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s open studios on Governors Island, “Bilderatlas,” a dramaturgical platform in collaboration with a series of strong dance artists.
Yasuko Yokoshi, ZERO ONE, 2015. Photo: Kentaro Hisatomi.
8. Another worthy curatorial endeavor is Prelude, the annual smorgasbord of theater and performance at The Graduate Center, CUNY. This edition, organized by Antje Oegel and Tom Sellar, takes place October 7–9. Details are still in flux, but one track that looks especially intriguing involves architecture. Artists including Annie Dorsen, David Levine, and Ryan McNamara will exhibit and discuss various speculative architectures of their imaginations, and there will be a panel with builders of new performing-arts buildings: Performance Space 122, St. Ann’s Warehouse, and the now near-mythical (in a Sisyphus kinda way) Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center.
9. Here’s an in-the-flesh architecture that’s one of the city’s performance epicenters: The Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City. The interdisciplinary space, in its tenth season, has a dance-heavy fall with works by the gorgeous movement investigators Jeanine Durning and Silas Riener, raunchy political comedy by Adrienne Truscott, and a dance installation by Michelle Ellsworth, who is doing some of the most engrossing explorations of how the body and technology coexist and collide. (Full disclosure: I have a commission there in December.)
10. The Chocolate Factory’s programming tends to involve a lot of women makers. Let’s swing to the opposite extreme. Ballet! I adore New York City Ballet, which has the most thrilling dancers and repertory, promotes homegrown talent (like the dancer-choreographers Justin Peck and Troy Schumacher) and commissions like mad—but how predictable yet disappointing that there’s nary a female choreographer to be seen in the premieres. In this, as in other diversity woes, City Ballet does not stand alone (nor ballet—hello exclusionary avant-garde legacies), but I guess I pick on the company because I hold it to a higher standard. But still, there are some exciting stirrings this fall: City Ballet alumni Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto are reunited in the noh drama Hagoromo at the Brooklyn Academy of Music November 6–8, and Schumacher continues his indie explorations with his BalletCollective November 4–5 at NYU’s Skirball Center. You can see teasers of both of these at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series, which also features City Ballet alumnae Emily Coates and physicist-collaborator Sarah Demers, on November 30.
11. Continuing in a scientific vein, how about an ecosexuality immersion course courtesy of Annie Sprinkle (sure, you’ve read about her vagina, but have you seen her in the flesh?) and Beth Stephens, who will be at Abrons Arts Center as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival September 16–26. This event has sometimes felt a little behind the times for New York, but you should be in good hands, or something, with artists like Ivo Dimchev and Max Steele.
12. Or maybe you’d like a little more fourth-wall safety in your performance-going. Probably you’ll get this with poet-star (never thought I’d write that word combo) Anne Carson, who will be at BAM with her Antigone translation September 24–October 4. I adore Carson (duh), though I’m weary of another Juliette Binoche vehicle. If you have more appetite for insanely good ensemble work than celebrity, perhaps try Fondly, Collette Richland, a new production by the always worthwhile playwright Sibyl Kempson and company Elevator Repair Service, at New York Theatre Workshop September 11–October 18.
13. I’d like to see Okwui Okpokwasili play Antigone. In the meantime, we have her Bronx Gothic October 21–24 at New York Live Arts. This undersung New York powerhouse has been getting more of her due in recent years. She’s in residence at NYLA for the next two years, for example, but you can also see her at The Kitchen, along with the equally astounding April Matthis, in Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room (October 30–December 5); I saw this work last year at the Walker Art Center. It blew me away.
14. Avant-Garde music time: The Japanese-born pioneers Takehisa Kosugi (The Whitney Museum, September 12–13) and Yoshi Wada (Issue Project Room, November 5–6) are not to be missed. But nor is La Monte Young or the work of Pandit Pran Nath, both of which you can catch at Dia. Their names are all interwoven, with one another and music history. Take your pick.
15. Ok, ok, I’ve strayed from my lesser-known artists premise. Let’s end with composer Brendan Connelly and performance artist Scotty Heron, both based in New Orleans, collaborating for the first time, December 10–12 at JACK in Brooklyn, with Appalachian Spring Break. Just… trust me. Go.
AT SOME POINT in Mike Taylor’s mockumentary DANCENOISE: The Phenomenon (1992), Richard Foreman holds forth, pointing out that you never know whether people are “really picking up on the salient points” of DANCENOISE or simply having “their own fantasies.”
It’s a marvelously deft and deadpan note in the satirical hagiography, which celebrates as iconic and omnipresent a performance duo (Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton) that was decidedly fringe. On Sunday afternoon at the Whitney Museum of American Art the film took on an added meta-dimension: The occasion for the Taylor screening was “Don’t Look Back,” a weeklong DANCENOISE survey that attempted to get at some of the energy and impact these performance-art club kids had in a 1980s and ’90s New York that has long-since vanished. There’s nothing left to look back at; so, naturally, we all become Orpheus.
Before this week, though I’d seen Iobst and Sexton perform on their own, I’d only seen one DANCENOISE routine live, in 2013 at a Danspace Project gala: the two of them naked as usual, studiously working their way through a rudimentary hula-hoop routine that ended in unison handstands, their legs well spread. I believe choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones appeared to brandish (fake?) flowers in tactical locales. These all seemed like salient points.
They also felt familiar. The ribald dance-theater energy, the junky showbiz flair edged with subversive critiques, the politics of impotence and absurdity—all of these strategies and textures have long been absorbed into the city’s performance bloodstream. Not so in the ’80s, apparently: The great Cynthia Carr, in a 1989 Village Voice review, described them as “a bracing new transgression.” And the DANCENOISE specter kept rising for Jay Sanders, the Whitney’s curator of performance, as older artists brought up the duo while he was organizing the engrossing 2013 exhibition “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980.”
“Don’t Look Back” shares a curatorial lightness of touch with “Rituals,” and an insistence on letting the artists lead. My first encounter with the show came last Wednesday night, when Iobst and Sexton invited artists for a pop-up version of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, the now-shuttered East Village bar where they used to host a weekly series.
Tom Berry’s entrance installation for King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Paula Court.
On the way up to the Whitney’s shiny new theater, crammed into a shiny new elevator, I overheard a gentleman sigh. “In the old days you used to climb a dirty staircase—this is a little like going to a job interview.” Granted, it was a job interview that served tequila and beer, but yes. The dislocation is unavoidable.
And as the skits zipped by that night, I kept thinking about how this sort of work lives or dies by its gut-level connection to its surrounding culture. Watching Julie Atlas Muz do a bad-cop strip routine, my mind turned uneasily to the trenchant social-media debates and activism swirling around racially loaded police brutality and feminism’s exclusionary history. The variety-show format feels of another time—and maybe that’s ok, but it raises the eternal questions over whether and how a museum can behave like a museum when it comes to live art.
And some cultural critiques remain evergreen. Most of the women I talked to after DANCENOISE: Show, the evening-length collage of old, new, and repurposed material that ran Thursday through Saturday, were most delighted by a section in which Iobst and Sexton, clad only in boots, bounced vigorously around the stage like rouge pistons. It’s exhilarating to see two disheveled and non-sexualized but sexy women in their fifties do this—it so totally disrupts the insidious codes of conduct by which we’re somehow still supposed to behave.
I wasn’t as drawn in by a lot of the other material, which I’m not sure, despite Iobst’s and Sexton’s enduring charisma, was well-served by being sliced and diced into a sort of greatest-hits reel for DANCENOISE fans. I found a lot more to sink into when I went back to the museum Sunday to spend a few hours with the installation, which was also in the theater, and consisted mainly of several monitors and screens looping vintage performances and excerpts of DANCENOISE shows, their soundtracks overlapping in ways both pleasurable and irritating. (Here one sees the politics of time and space: Why only five days for “Don’t Look Back,” Whitney, and why jam it all into the theater, so that the installation had to be dismantled to accommodate the live events?)
DANCENOISE, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, 2015. Performance view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, July 22, 2015. Julie Atlas Muz. Photo: Paula Court.
“Oh, this is just too weird,” one middle-aged tourist said to her friend, before walking out, as Iobst and Sexton, accompanied by pop songs, clad in outlandish prop-and-costume collages, and streaked by fake-blood like a pair of daffy psychopaths, wreaked inexplicable havoc across the screens, among themselves and their collaborators (Houston-Jones! Yvonne Meier! Mike Iveson! …the all-star list goes on). Messy stacks of paper were placed here and there, containing typo-laden reflections by Iobst on such riches as wheatpasting with Tom Murrin and makeup lessons from Ethyl Eichelberger. I hastily scooped the pages into my bag: black-market archival riches.
No matter the fuzzy recordings and bad sound—even mediated, seeing this work in its intended context was exhilarating. There was a freedom and promiscuity in their violent physicality that must have served as an incredibly powerful rejoinder in a time and place where so many people were dying of a disease that preys on bodily contact.
The intensity of that main room was offset by a tiny chamber in the back featuring a narrow bed with a worn Spider-Man blanket, stained costumes, prop lists, programs, and a television set playing Guiding Light. The fabled DANCENOISE studio! I wanted to lie down on the bed and simply stay, like the little android boy in A.I. who locks eyes with the Blue Fairy underwater and settles into an aspirational trance. Maybe you can go back in time, if it’s someone else’s time.
But anyway I had to clear out because the theater had to be converted for the film screening. Returning later that day for my third DANCENOISE event I felt somehow altered by the density of experience and information.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for the final screening of the exhibition, a full-length production of Hedda Gabler Hedda Gabler from 1992 at La MaMa, also featuring DANCENOISE collaborators Iveson, Hapi Phace, and Richard Move. It was documented by Charles Atlas (whose short film on Iobst and Sexton being installed at the Whitney is a gem), and you can hear his quiet giggles throughout the recording. The depth of sadness and strangeness conjured by a tightly wrought mashup of pathos, absurdity, and beauty was revelatory—my previous fantasies of DANCENOISE never included repertory theater. It was a different sort of blood and guts, and I don’t care if we shouldn’t look back: Somebody should reprise this sucker, and soon.
“DANCENOISE: Don’t Look Back” ran July 22–26, 2015, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.