Naked Truths

Claudia La Rocco on “DANCENOISE: Don’t Look Back” at the Whitney

DANCENOISE, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, 2015. Performance view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, July 22, 2015. Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst. Photo: Paula Court.

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.