VALLEJO GANTNER, artistic director of Performance Space 122, stood in his institution’s upstairs theater before a group of industry insiders last Monday. He smiled. “Those of you who aren’t from New York—we can’t wait for you to leave. We’re tired.”
There was a pause. Gantner’s colleagues laughed. He didn’t add “Just kidding.”
So goes APAP, the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference. While most industries are just beginning to shake off their holiday lethargy, the performing arts are in full, frenetic overdrive.
There are panel discussions, meet and greets, parties. And performances––more than any army could see––as everyone peddles their wares, often on sampler showcases that offer excerpts from recent works. You can’t move during the long weekend (this year’s fell from January 8 to 12, with some offerings running longer) without bumping into a dazed artist or a harried, lanyard-draped presenter.
“A room full of opportunity, if only I knew where to look,” the choreographer Megan Sprenger sighed during one event, scanning the crowd. She added, “We’ve been joking about selling a ‘Presenter ID’ book with hidden-camera shots of all the important people.”
During conferences past, a critic—particularly one interested in the sort of progressive work that rarely makes it outside New York—could sit back comfortably, watching the feeding frenzy unfold around snippets of shows she had already seen. But in recent years, the more adventuresome contemporary houses have begun mobilizing, offering their own fully produced festivals or even anti-APAP events, all of which has only exacerbated the industry clusterfuck. Six years ago, Mark Russell launched the Under the Radar festival for contemporary theater. P.S. 122 followed suit in 2006 with the interdisciplinary COIL, and HERE Arts Center has its Culturemart resident-artist offerings, which fall just after APAP.
And this year, a new player emerged: the American Realness dance festival, produced by arts representative Ben Pryor through his nascent management venture, tbspMGMT. In the fine tradition of agitators, Pryor announced American Realness by offering a rebuttal to Michael Kaiser’s Huffington Post assessment of dance in this country, in which the Kennedy Center president wondered “which companies will have the wherewithal––both artistic and financial––to do justice to” modern-dance “masterpieces” that preceded them, seemingly unaware that the art form long ago moved on from the very models over which he waxed nostalgic.
Pryor’s challenging festival, featuring eight artists at the Abrons Arts Center, included Last Meadow, Miguel Gutierrez’s powerful dance-theater interrogation of American culture, and another ribald “solo” by the polarizing performance artist Ann Liv Young. APAP forces viewers into tough choices, and I was unable to see Young’s apparently, er, colorful show involving blueberries pulled from her nether cavity, her menstrual blood (or at least its appearance), and an exchange with a Kitchen curator in which she called the institution out for supposedly ending, or at least taking a break from, presenting her work. (“I’m not trying to talk sass,” she argued. “I’m just being direct.”)
Earl Dax, an independent producer and curator, detailed what I’d missed while we waited for an American Realness–affiliated show, Jeremy Wade’s one-night stand at Japan Society, in a packed audience that included Gutierrez, Pryor, Gantner, Luciana Achugar (another American Realness choreographer), and Crossing the Line curators Simon Dove and Lili Chopra. The inevitable Young debate—“Is she a crazy bitch or just adept at manipulating a public persona?”—ensued. The latter, Dax claimed. “Although I certainly do love the crazy bitches.”
More mainstream fare could be found at Under the Radar at the Public Theater. Locals like Brian Rogers of the interdisciplinary Long Island City theater the Chocolate Factory and Brad Learmonth of Harlem Stage were joined by out-of-town luminaries like the Walker Art Center’s Philip Bither, to name just a few. Cathy Edwards, the artistic force behind both New Haven’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas and PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival (she succeeded Russell and now has one hundred thousand dollars to play with from the Warhol Foundation), poked fun at the small circles in which she and her colleagues travel.
“Scooped again!” she laughed, after detailing how, at yet another festival, she’d approached the hot young Polish director Radoslaw Rychcik about getting him to the US only to hear his and Teatr Nowy’s Versus—In the Jungle of Cities had been nabbed by Russell for UtR. No matter; a highly informal poll concluded that Edwards dodged a major bullet. (Andy Horwitz, Culturebot.org’s intrepid founder, summed things up: “I wanted to like it a lot more than I did.”)
This year, there was some general head scratching over Russell’s biggest-ever lineup, which included veterans like Anne Bogart’s SITI Company and Ping Chong and lacked a defining curatorial vision. But the truth is that UtR is an establishment force at this point, more mini–BAM Next Wave than rebellious upstart. Yet it still provides a wide platform for new international work (Philippe Quesne’s L’Effet de Serge charmed just about everyone) and rising local companies.
Of the latter was the National Theater of the United States of America’s Chautauqua!, a copresentation with COIL. NTUSA had an acclaimed run at P.S. 122 last spring, but we live in a time when touring opportunities are all too scarce for indie performance works, especially those that aren’t proven box-office draws for a wide audience.
Short runs may sell out (like Chautauqua!), but return engagements can be hard to come by. With a few shining exceptions like Edwards, American presenters aren’t exactly a risk-taking species, and current economic realities certainly haven’t done anything to reverse the trend toward safe, milquetoast programming. But institutions have to catch up with artists at some point, right?