Last Picture Show

Left: Outside The Hayworth. Right: The crowd after the performance. (Photos: Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer)

DON’T BE FOOLED: dance is just the most divine distraction. Elad Lassry’s first major foray into live performance last Friday was—like all of his rapidly expanding practice—emphatically and ecstatically a work about pictures. His much anticipated, one-night-only Untitled (Presence 2005) at MacArthur Park’s Hayworth Theater insisted on performance as a kind of durational picture or continuum of infinite potential pictures unfolding within the frame of the stage. Think of it as the first of what will be many pictures making up the artist’s upcoming exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery later this month.

Picture this, for one: The midsize, 1920s-era theater is filled to capacity. In addition to a bunch of notable writers (including Tim Griffin of The Kitchen, which will be hosting Lassry’s next performance), the audience is full of Lassry’s artist peers, from Amanda Ross-Ho and Lisa Lapinski to Ryan Trecartin, Lizzie Fitch, Kaari Upson, and Thomas Demand. There is stillness and a pitch-perfect silence that will last the whole show.

The stage lights come on, exposing a bright, planar tableau. The set is overlapping parallel color blocks: An apple-green, hip-height wall is in front of a taller tan wall with a central egg-shaped cutout that is in front of a canary-yellow wall with a long horizontal window cutout that is in front of a milky white wall with no cutout at all. The cutouts are like apertures. Three female dancers, who at this early point in the evening haven’t really established themselves as “dancers” per se, face us head-on from behind the yellow wall. They stand perfectly still, establishing frontality, direct address, and staring as essential keys for opening up performance-as-picture. Dance is a photo shoot with or without the camera. The lights go down.

Picture two: The same scene, only this time the dancers are prim and proper and looking out a picture window and the set is a theatrical approximation of suburban tract housing, complete with a meticulously trimmed green hedge out front. Who says there’s no room for narrative in rigorous formalism?

Picture three: The lights go up. Add two male dancers in jungle-green button-ups and pants on either side of the egg hole. They pose with arms bent and raised. Subtract one of the three women dancers from the hole in the yellow wall; she glides across the stage, coming into view through the egg hole as she pulls along a looping blue sculpture on wheels that frames her face. The looping blue sculpture is like a giant ribbon pinned to the set and, in as much, is made equivalent to the dancers as compositional objects of a similar scale.

Elad Lassry, Untitled (Presence 2005), 2012. Performance views, The Hayworth, Los Angeles, March 2, 2012. Photos: Fredrik Nilson.

The women are in matching magenta button-ups and pants—it will be an American Apparel ad one day if it isn’t already. The striking, monochrome costumes are also uniforms, because these captivating young dancers, all from the elite ranks of the New York City Ballet, are also at times movers and workers, practical and useful employee-types who physically rearrange the mobile set to variously frame the choreographed tableaux.

Lassry specifically based the work’s vignettelike series of affectless movement passages on the marginal choreography danced by the corps ensemble (which is to say not solo or spotlit material) in the background of Balanchine’s modernist “black-and-white ballets.” We see an abstracted stand-in for “dance.” Ballet, like photography and cinema, is another formal language with a grammar and conventions that can be taken apart, repeated, stuttered, digitized, and recombined.

Picture four: This picture has all six of the dancers onstage in male-female pairs, performing the same simple gesture over and over again like a body mantra or gears in a machine. Every picture is a picture of über-precision. Everything is exactly on the mark. The smallest gesture repeated in unison holds my attention: One arm rotates in its socket like a twitchy, record-skipping glitch that is both rigorously mechanical and delightfully ridiculous—deadpan.

Picture five: Two dancers, one on either side of the egg hole, dance the same dance, turning the aperture into kind of mirror.

Elad Lassry, Untitled (Presence 2005), 2012. Performance view, The Hayworth, Los Angeles, March 2, 2012. Photo: Fredrik Nilson.

Picture six: Using what Lassry calls my “mental lens” and Jill Johnston once described as “the visual image . . . two inches behind the bridge of my nose,” I can frame the entire composition (which will vary depending on my seat in the audience) as a wide-angle shot. Or I can zoom in and take a picture of a detail on set, like the nearly baroque and utterly exquisite veils of layered shadows (so well lit!) or the small, dark sweat spot under one ballerina’s armpit that was a singular punctum amid the clean, hard perfection.

Picture seven: Can pictures—photographs—capture the pitter-patter sound of a ballerina tip-tip-tapping en pointe?

Picture eight: The set is so colorful and graphic it pops. And when it pops it flattens space like a collage, creating optical illusions and incredible perceptual shifts between performance as flow versus tableau, continuous movement versus discrete shapes. This is the work’s acute tension. Dance as both wave and particle. Amen.

There is a way of looking at things that renders them pictures.

The experience was totally brilliant: “Mediation without representation,” to quote the artist. “Maybe the picture doesn’t have to be a photograph. Maybe it can be a dance.” I’m dying to see more.