PRINT December 2009



Merce Cunningham, Event, 2009. Performance view, Rockefeller Park, New York, August 6, 2009. Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Photo: Ryan McNamara.

THE SKY WAS GLEAMING one day and gray the next. Over two consecutive afternoons, a small crowd gathered, waiting patiently, in Rockefeller Park in New York. Each day, a strange horn sounded, eleven dancers dressed like superheroes cut across the grass toward two platforms, and the performance commenced: intelligent, rigorous, ebullient.

Merce Cunningham’s last self-arranged “Event” (as he called it) took place in early August, a mere week after his death. His passing, at age ninety, left a hole not only in his company—which is radically slated for dissolution following a two-year world tour—but in the heart of the performance world at large. This hole was the subject of a plangent piece for the Huffington Post by Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (hardly the front lines of the avant-garde), fretfully titled “Why I Worry About Modern Dance.” “Where are the young companies that are gathering strength and are prepared to accept the mantle from the Twylas, Pauls, Merces and Marthas?” Kaiser lamented. (His Yankeecentric lineup regrettably eschewed the Pinas—another tragic loss this year.) Not surprisingly, Kaiser’s hand-wringing provoked eye rolls from the very community he was simultaneously addressing and obscuring. “Why are you looking for Mommy and Daddy?” choreographer Miguel Gutierrez retorted in a recent interview. “It’s not about identifying one.”

Gutierrez gives voice to a common plaint among contemporary choreographers. So Mommy and Daddy are dead; so there’s no inheritance. So it’s a small, marginalizing, unfair world. So what? Get on with it and make dance; build your own spaces and communities. Abandon the well-worn repertory and company models; raise the stakes, find what works. It’s the survivalist mentality of a field that has weathered decades with meager institutional funding and critical support.

Indeed, one senses a shift in perspective. New attention has lately been directed toward emerging dance and other live forms via a veritable performative turn (or return) in art. Recent multipronged events such as the Performa biennial in New York and the annual Time-Based Art Festival in Portland, Oregon, present the visual and the performing arts side by side. This year, too, there was Marina Abramović’s museum of performance hosted by the Manchester International Festival; the Art Basel premiere of “Il Tempo del Postino”; and “One Minute More,” an intimate exhibition at the Kitchen in New York featuring young local artists who work with live material, all of which suggests that performance is undergoing an encouraging . . . renaissance isn’t quite the word, but certainly an efflorescence.

Intriguingly, many visual artists engaged in performance this past year, and they frequently chose the bromidic model of the artist lecture: Paul Sietsema (for SculptureCenter at the New School in New York), the Jackson Pollock Bar (for the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale), Cory Arcangel (at the New Museum in New York), Mark Leckey (for MOMA at Abrons Arts Center), and Rabih Mroué (for the Bidoun Lounge at Art Dubai) among them. Most evinced an arch or impish relationship to institutional structures, using the (largely overdetermined) format to reflect on the still sacred myth of the artist as conveyor of special knowledge. And they largely relied on mind over matter, disavowing the body: Heady Sietsema wasn’t even present for his “lecture,” instead telegraphing ideas via an abstruse, collagist film. One wonders whether this trend might be an occasion for fruitful dialogue among different performance traditions. What often seems missing from narratives about the current performative turn is that some of the most rigorous artists—certainly those who dedicate the bulk of their time to living, ratifying, and revising the conditions of performance—are first and foremost choreographers.

Sarah Michelson, Dover Beach, 2009. Rehearsal view, The Kitchen, New York, June 8, 2009. Non Griffiths. Photo: Paula Court.

IF HIGH-PITCHED, flat-footed, expensive spectacles such as “Il Tempo del Postino,” Philippe Parreno, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Anri Sala, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s group exhibition occupying “time rather than space”—a sort of dramatic Ziegfeld Follies for prominent visual artists—demonstrate anything, it’s that there is still much to learn from cross-disciplinary dialogue regarding the vast range of performative practices. Many of the works that seemed most urgent this year emerged from the genre of the performing arts called downtown dance—a tenacious misnomer, to be sure, since its most active participants work in non-Manhattan spaces such as Chez Bushwick and the Chocolate Factory, at European festivals such as Vienna’s ImPulsTanz, or in museums such as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the New Museum. In fact, that which travels under the appellation “downtown dance” typically speaks the language of contemporary art, so perhaps it makes sense to speak more catholically about “contemporary dance”—leaving behind banal geographic modifiers for the endgames of interdisciplinarity. While visual artists have occasionally co-opted the movement explorations and staging strategies of dance and theater (Matthew Barney, anyone?), contemporary dance has also taken hold of familiar art-world questions of appropriation and quotation, world building and reflexivity, and inflected these themes with ones more specific to the form: questions of physical ableness or virtuosity, anxieties around documentation, and the fetishization of the (often young, charismatic, or beautiful) dancer.

The ways in which individual dances speak this language vary, of course. (Additionally, it would be problematic if, in bridging contemporary dance and contemporary art, one resolved or erased the histories and differences unique to each field.) If there is a current presiding “school” of dance, it doesn’t organize itself around a specific site (Judson) or master technique (Denishawn, Graham, Cunningham)—though certain choreographers, such as Jérôme Bel or Tere O’Connor, might act as transient lodestars. Contemporary dance is not rebelling against a particular vision or style. Rather, the prevailing mode is syncretic. Like the most interesting art practices of recent years, its activities are decentered, occupying far-flung networks and engaging a multifarious arena of reception. (As yet, there are no art fairs for dance—but isn’t that why we invented Tino Sehgal?)

If there was a more weirdly ravishing exemplar of this syncretism in the past year than Sarah Michelson’s Dover Beach at the Kitchen, I must have missed it. The work consisted largely of elaborate pairings and divisions, with the Kitchen’s vast black-box theater split in half by a giant lime-green cage that obscured the movements of the dancers (all but one were women; several were teens) parked in its purview, stage left. Dover Beach featured several striking signature movements, as when a dancer extended a leg in the air, clasping it with her hands (or having it clasped for her) for an uncomfortable period of time; the gesture was awkward, and for many of the dancers, particularly the adolescent ones, the action thoroughly compromised their stability. This move’s counterpoint was an extended genuflection, often made when the music (scored by Pete Drungle) reached a peak and one anticipated an increase in activity rather than a break in momentum.

One found in Dover Beach a hard-boiled playfulness with regard to the conventions (though, importantly, not to particular histories) of ballet and contemporary dance. The piece was not, for instance, a pastiche or a reprise, not another take on Swan Lake or The Rite of Spring; nor was it a predictable flouting of the Rules, á la Karole Armitage’s “punk” ballets (revisited in a show at the Kitchen in March), which map the plucky codes of filmic teenage rebellion onto virtuosic ballet technique. Dover Beach instead cultivated the rich humus of ballet and modern and minimalist dance to produce something very different, a work founded on the legacy of twentieth-century choreography without being beholden to it, a contemporary attitude as much as a style.

Trailer for Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, Last Meadow, 2009.

Contemporary dance is, to put it glibly, a rebel without a cause—a meme (inadvertently?) highlighted by Gutierrez in Last Meadow, his uneven but wildly ecstatic meditation on “James Dean” and “an America in a state of collapse,” which inaugurated Dance Theater Workshop’s fall 2009 season. Gutierrez’s work traced a well-worn line from film and popular music to dance, with experimental theater as an obvious reference: The three principal performers—Gutierrez, Michelle Boulé, and Tarek Halaby—assumed costumes and postures of characters from Dean’s three movies. They appropriated and took apart scenes from the films, got stuck in repetitions, and spoke over one another. They struck mannered poses as if rehearsing Warhol Screen Tests and parodied friendly banter in a disarming false entr’acte. (Boulé played Dean, sporting a blond wig and a red leather jacket, while a bearded Halaby channeled Dean heroines such as Julie Harris and Lois Smith.) A bit more than halfway through, they all broke character—no small feat given the extent to which the very condition of “character” had already been destabilized—stripping down and bounding about (and off) the stage to a feverish remix of Madonna’s “Jump.” The work ended with a coda in which three younger doppelgängers came onstage to reenact, ad infinitum, a scene from Rebel Without a Cause as the audience left the theater. If much of this reads as sophomoric, it also frequently appeared so live, though the piece was no less startling for it. Gutierrez plays with this naïveté as its own metalayer in his work. For him, embarrassment, irritation, and cliché are weapons in a broad arsenal: They are means to an end, methods for setting up, betraying, and occasionally fulfilling (i.e., “performing”) expectations of sincerity and vulnerability.

A rather different manner of quotation was foregrounded in Raimund Hoghe’s L’Après-midi (The Afternoon), 2008, a sophisticated, nuanced interplay between the hunchbacked choreographer and his virtuosic muse, Emmanuel Eggermont, presented on a September afternoon at Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church in New York. Hoghe’s title recalls Nijinsky’s first, famous choreographic work, L’Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), 1912, and much of the piece consisted of Eggermont slowly and exactingly striking hieratic postures that appear transposed from period photographs of the in-famous dancer. Edwin Denby, who wrote on those photographs for Dance Index in 1943, nearly anticipated Hoghe’s piece: “In their stillness Nijinsky’s pictures have more vitality than the dances they remind us of as we now see them on stage. . . . It is interesting to try oneself to assume the poses on the pictures, beginning with arms, shoulders, neck, and head.” Rather than attempting to reconstruct the original ballet, Hoghe seemed to trace a mimetic choreography from these early images. At the performance, the art historian Douglas Crimp astutely noted that Eggermont’s bearings occasionally recalled not only the titular faun but also images of the nymphs, complicating Hoghe’s framing of gender, desire, and reproduction in the work.

It was another piece, though, that confirmed for me that Danspace was one of the season’s centers of performative experimentation. Jack Ferver’s Death Is Certain, presented in April, stood as firmly in the realm of theater as that of dance. Three performers—Ferver, Tony Orrico, and Liz Santoro—threw themselves into a fast-paced series of histrionic scenarios, beginning with Orrico and Santoro conversing about their day—or, actually, reading from scripts that narrated a “real” conversation about their day. (Like an episode of The Hills, but faker.) This arch, recursive “reality” was performed with winking aplomb, in the campy “wearing-theatrics-on-the-sleeve” style that is becoming Ferver’s forte. Solipsism and self-caricature thus functioned as the work’s termini. The piece devolved—in a simultaneously pleasant and uncomfortable way—into Solid Gold dancing, more discomfiting conversation, and gratuitous nudity. My favorite behind-the-scenes anecdote comes via a dramaturge who asked Ferver to justify this wanton clothes ridding. “What if I want the nudity to be gratuitous?” Ferver retorted, handily dismissing tedious artistic moralism with blunt, because-I-say-so intentionality. The fate of authorship—almost a moot point anyway, since a dance rarely (never?) goes off as one “intends”—is fraught territory in such an ephemeral medium, where the fault line dividing the gesture and its afterimage is particularly salient. Memory wages war with dance; invariably, it is memory that surrenders first.

Lucinda Childs’s, Dance, 1979. Trailer for performance at Joyce Theater, 2009.

To bastardize an idea of Tere O’Connor’s, part of what constitutes a dance is the aftereffect, “the little finality of images you take from it.” Some of my favorite “images” from the past year or so: Greg Zuccolo and Allegra Herman’s unsettling pas de deux at the end of Dover Beach; the empty space onstage in Hoghe’s Boléro Variations at Dance Theater Workshop, reserved for a dancer (Nabil Yahia-Aïssa) whose passport was held up by the Department of Homeland Security; David Hallberg’s taut thrusts and retreats in Alexei Ratmansky’s recent commissions for American Ballet Theatre; the flurry of phrase repetitions overlaid by a Sol LeWitt film in Lucinda Childs’s thirtieth-anniversary revival of Dance at the Joyce; the battered handsaw that threatened to crack and fly into the audience in Ann Liv Young’s unhinged The Bagwell in Me at the Kitchen; Ferver’s abrupt closing line in Death Is Certain: “When I started making this piece, I—” Lights.

David Velasco is editor of