Performance Anxiety

Jennifer Lacey, Gattica, 2011. Photo: Ian Douglas.

“I’M GOING TO HAVE MY EYES CLOSED for a little bit. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not with you.”

So spoke Jennifer Lacey, the highly regarded American choreographer who has been based in Paris for the past twelve years. It was a line from her whimsical, agile solo Gattica, which had its American premiere here last week as part of the American Realness festival at Abrons Arts Center.

Her words could have been the slogan for APAP, the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York, where there aren’t enough hours in the day or shots at the bar to manage the absurd onslaught of performance and performance-related events. APAP might in fact consider printing this disclaimer on the lanyards sported by its members; it would perhaps sensitize everyone to such awkward moments as when, say, the artistic director of a certain theater was observed taking ever-longer “blinks” while sitting next to the artist whose work he was, at that very moment, presenting.

Officially, APAP lasted for five days this year, from January 6 to 10 at the midtown Hilton. But for increasing numbers of presenters, artists, writers, and the odd civilian, especially those interested in contemporary work, the unofficial APAP is the main—even the only—APAP. And this one lasts for a good deal longer, thanks to the festivals, such as Under the Radar, COIL, and American Realness, that have sprung up around the conference to capitalize on booking opportunities, and which now stretch days and, in some cases, weeks beyond it.

The out-of-towners are mostly in attendance that first weekend, of course, and mostly in a constant state of flight. There goes PICA’s recently appointed artistic director Angela Mattox, breezing through the Abrons lobby. Here comes the Walker Art Center’s Philip Bither or On the Boards’ Sarah Wilke sprinting up the theater steps as the lights dim for an Under the Radar show.

Elastic City, Salve, 2011. Photo: Ian Douglas.

One theater director mentioned that, not surprisingly, pretty much every artist on his roster wanted to open on that first weekend; at least one of his companies threatened to go elsewhere otherwise. But how much are these curators actually able to take in, and is this frenzied environment really where we want them to be making decisions about what will fill their stages? As I filed into La MaMa for an afternoon UtR showing on day four of APAP, I overheard this exchange:

Woman: “It was the Heather Kravas.” Pause. “No. I have to check my calendar so I know what I saw. It was Heather Lang.”

Man: “Oh. So I can cross that off the list?”

Woman: “Yes.”

I didn’t catch their names. But they both wore lanyards.

“It’s a little easier this week,” an exhausted-looking Ben Pryor said when asked how he was weathering the second half of his American Realness festival. Of course, now he had a new problem: filling his houses with audience members who had already overdosed on performances and were now spending more time questioning their sanity than actually, you know, paying attention to art.

As one beleaguered writer texted to her editor, midperformance: “What are we doing?!?”

Response: “Where are we???”

“Art purgatory,” the writer answered.

Counter: “Group therapy.”

Davis Freeman, Too Shy to Stare, 2011. Megan Harrold and Matthew Morris. Photo: Ryan Jensen.

I had the eerie sensation I was at the intersection of both while at a 9 PM showing of Davis Freeman’s Too Shy to Stare. Part of COIL, the work is meant for only ten audience members at a time, all of whom must have their pictures taken a day or so in advance of the piece. The work unfolds through minishows in little rooms for solo audience members, who sit watching anonymous performers, their faces covered with photographs of, you guessed it, the faces of their respective audience members.

(“Davis Freeman creates an intensely intimate environment where you sit down, relax, and discover who is left confronting you at the end of the day,” the advance press read. The answer: Some stranger papered in pictures of you?)

A day or so later, at an 11 PM run of the Elastic City walking tour Salve, it was we ourselves who were the performers. We walked barefoot (outside). We made up a sound score for the street (inside). We ended by offering our best silent performances, cocooned within the silence and darkness of the stage under the pit at Abrons. Artist and curator Andrew Dinwiddie mimed slow-motion escape, to no avail.

The Portland-based singer-songwriter and performing artist Holcombe Waller might have had such traumas in mind when he devised his gentle concert Visions of a song man, performed with Ben Landsverk at American Realness. “It’s the restorative yoga” session of the festival, he joked after the show.

If only Keith Hennessy had been tuned in to that. The magnetic, sophisticated artist had traveled out from San Francisco to perform Almost, with the composer Jassem Hindi.

“I have been ripping my nails to shreds in the last week,” he informed his audience. “It’s been a lot of anxiety. That’s my American Realness.”