Everyday People

Claudia La Rocco on Claude Wampler, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and Trisha Brown

Claude Wampler, N’a pas un gramme de charisma. (Not an ounce of charisma.), 2013. Performance view, The Kitchen, New York. Photo: Paula Court.

BRILLIANT,” the man behind me at the Kitchen exhaled, to himself and his date and anybody else within earshot on this particular Sunday afternoon, during the final performance of Claude Wampler’s N’a pas un gramme de charisme. (Not an ounce of charisma.).

It was spoken in that reverent, self-satisfied stage whisper, where it’s always ambiguous as to whether the person is speaking about the art, or himself for perceiving the art, or some combination of the two. And lo. Just then the woman onstage—well, technically on the risers where the audience typically sits but which in this case formed the stage, with the audience sitting on the literal stage—collapsed awkwardly backward in an inflated poof of shiny fabric.

Why do we go to the theater? What keeps us coming back to church? I thought about this vague question a lot this past weekend, a weekend over the course of which I spent thirteen full hours in the theater: one at Wampler; two watching the Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and ten (in a row) at the Public Theater, for the Soho Rep. production of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1–4.

That’s a lot of hours watching other people’s lives. Maybe it’s not so bad if it makes us feel something—even self-satisfied. Or maybe it is: “I think audiences really want somebody to entertain them and make them feel special,” Wampler mentioned in an interview, reaffirming that she’s trying to “refuse this demand.”

This is a predictably condescending thing to say. But more to the point, where’s the refusal? N’a pas un gramme de charisme., which is (wink wink) all about charisma, is a frothy, disaffected art-world spectacle, populated by John Tremblay’s colorful chunky Flintstone-esque objects and camera-ready dancers (including, creepily but not nearly creepily enough, Wampler’s eight-year-old daughter) and presided over by Mitch Margold’s organ music. There’s a bored and sometimes charmingly awkward seduction at play. Everything is pretty serious, even the awkwardness, and despite the funky sound, the only people who look like they are having sustained fun are the black dancers seen on grainy, 1970s-looking recorded footage. In her 1981 essay “A Criticism of Outrage,” Jill Johnston remembered an event in 1952 in North Carolina, “where hundreds of black people danced freely to a disco band and refracted light displays. We whites were stamped on the backs of our hands with infrared numbers and herded to a balcony where we were allowed to watch.”

It’s all a little queasy-making. (But then, not nearly queasy-making enough.) So were the Katz Deli hotdogs served during our cafeteria-style dinner break in Life and Times. They were oddly satisfying (though not as satisfying as the pb&j sandwiches the audience got at Nature Theater’s No Dice from 2007). And here I want to start inserting “like” and “um” and “you know” into my sentences, because this is a huge and happy part of the point of the company’s productions, which feature unedited phone-conversation scripts

Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Life and Time: Episode 2, 2013. Performance view, The Public Theater, New York. Photo: Nature Theater of Oklahoma.

In this case the conversations were with one gal, Kristin Worrall, who performs with the company and who grew up in white middleclass New England suburbia. We get to hear all about it: the crushes, the fuzzy childhood memories, the humiliations and the triumphs and the brushes with less sheltered lives. Devastating social hierarchies. “Gay” as a playground catchall insult.

“Did it get stupider? Did we get bored with it? Maybe they got bored with it?” a friend mused after it was all over, as we hustled out into snowy, midnight SoHo. I dunno. But I found myself a little too entertained, and turned off by Worrall’s continual references to people’s looks and lack of intelligence. Put a recorder on anyone for eight hours and it doesn’t stay pretty. Or eight seconds—Björk was at the Public that Saturday, along with a hefty chunk of the performance-world intelligentsia, and during our dessert break (brownies disappointingly free of additives) we watched an influential curator snapping a covert picture of her with his iPhone. Life and Times!

I don’t know if we want art to make us feel special. Somehow I think it’s more about movement—to catch us up in something urgent, no matter if it’s the urgency of the mundane everyday, something we have to say “yes” or “no” to. I adore Nature Theater for its dogged insistence on that everyday, stylized just beyond an inch of its life. But the zipping between pathos and slyness wears me out. There are more “states” than California and New York.

There’s New Jersey, for example. And Newark (Niweweorce), Trisha Brown’s gorgeous anvil of a dance; to see the cast emerge exhausted and triumphant from its unrelenting geometries at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Friday night was pretty grand. Some of them probably weren’t born yet when Brown made the dance, in 1987, when she and Donald Judd somehow dreamed up the idea of sending her valiant phrases cutting across a stage while his vibrant color scrims descended periodically like guillotines. And now they’re all that remains: a mobile archive with no new material to store. Brown, who has been in ill health for years, wasn’t in the theater, and her company faces that unsolvable dilemma of how to move forward now that she no longer is.

Brown’s radical days are long behind her, and so it’s doubtful her supporting staff will make the radical decision to fold up the tents for good. What’s the right move here? Just like always in church, there’s no one qualified to say.