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PRINT December 2022

performance

THE YEAR IN PERFORMANCE

“Weird Al” Yankovic performing at Pechanga Casino, Temecula, CA, September 16, 2022. Photo: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images.

CAN AN ARTIST HIT THE JUGULAR while they’re reaching for the wallet at the same time? Only if the wallet and the jugular are the same thing. In the cultural devolution of “audience” to “eyeballs,” perhaps no genre has so loudly insisted on its robust resistance to power as comedy—and perhaps no genre’s complicity has, since 2017, been made more transparent. (Let the rise of Joe Rogan be citation enough here.) To borrow a one-liner from Morgan Bassichis’s brilliant solo performance Questions to Ask Beforehand (Bridget Donahue), “What stage of capitalism is it called when everyone’s a comedian?” In a 1982 interview with the French filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub—who might be most expediently contextualized here as not comedians—Straub notes:

During the whole Nazi time in Germany, they had a lot of satire. It is kind of important [that] when people are no longer able to rebel or to change what happens or, to use a bad word, influence politics or history, they begin to make satires.*

Cool kids always manage to end up in the pocket of authority—bad boys become good old boys, one way or another.

1
Although “Weird Al” Yankovic’s spoofs have been gracing the airwaves since the Ford administration, for the two hours of his sublime “The Unfortunate Return of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour,” he sang not his beloved parodies but his originals—lesser-known genre send-ups that are sometimes surprisingly twisted and ferocious. (Imagine if Dennis Cooper had grown up taking accordion lessons and revering Dr. Demento.) Example: a James Taylor–esque ditty titled “Good Old Days,” in which Yankovic sings as a psychopath nostalgic for his youth:

Do you remember sweet Michelle?
She was my high school romance
She was fun to talk to and nice to smell
So I took her to the homecoming dance
Then I tied her to a chair and I shaved off all her hair
And I left her in the desert all alone
Well, sometimes in my dreams I can still hear the screams
Oh, I wonder if she ever made it home

While I was struggling to precisely articulate the cultural necessity of Yankovic’s oddball genius, an artist friend happened to send me a quote from Mike Kelley that Dodie Bellamy borrowed for the epigraph to her 2015 book, When the Sick Rule the World: “What I dislike about a lot of contemporary artists,” Kelley said, “is that they want to be hipsters. They’re not willing to be the fools.” Cool kids always manage to end up in the pocket of authority—bad boys become good old boys, one way or another. The uncool remain defiant.

Christopher Wheeldon, MJ, 2022. Rehearsal view, Neil Simon Theatre, New York, January 25, 2022. Michael Jackson (Myles Frost). Photo: Matthew Murphy.

2
As the star of the unsettlingly glorious MJ: The Musical (Neil Simon Theatre), Myles Frost was not at all a parody but rather a study in pure imitation, an embodiment at once canny and uncanny of the King of Pop. Celebrity-on-celebrity biopics jam too much face into a face, so it makes sense that an unknown actor was needed to channel, and to diffuse, one of the world’s most recognizable stars. A jukebox musical can’t untangle Jackson’s complexity—his extraordinary talent, his unrelenting work ethic, his serial sexual abuse of young boys—and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Lynn Nottage, who wrote the show’s book, sets its story on the eve of the Dangerous tour, before the accusations were made public. MJ seeks absolution, mostly for itself, asking audiences to return to a time that precedes the need to forgive or forget. As per legendary producer Quincy Jones’s command to Jackson to “serve the song,” we might well hear Nottage’s note to self—or the Jackson estate’s note to her and to the show’s choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon. Immersed in songs so extraordinary, I wanted a form that could rise to the occasion of telling the whole story.

View of “Attention Line,” 2022, Artists Space, New York. Photo: Filip Wolak.

3
The riotous and reinvigorating exhibition “Attention Line” (organized by Artists Space and Andrew Lampert) celebrated a motley selection of performers, artists, filmmakers, and writers who have modeled modes of resistance—to power, to capital, to any and all systems that dull art into decoration for wealthy walls. There was no better balm than this show for that queasy feeling New York audiences have been whispering about for a few years now: that America’s descent into fascism has largely gone unacknowledged (formally and otherwise) in culture; that in theaters and galleries and museums, work looks suspiciously business-as-usual. From Johanna Went’s and Tom Murrin’s “trash” theatrics to Circus Amok’s spectacularly queer pageantry; from Vaginal Davis’s outing of the erotics in American violence and the violence in American erotics to Ed Bereal’s deployment of satire as a Trojan horse for information otherwise suppressed in the media, these histories offer much needed lessons in forward thinking.

Machine Dazzle self-portrait, The MAC, Belfast, 2016.

4
The great fashion editor Diana Vreeland once declared that “the eye has to travel,” and the exhibition “Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle” (Museum of Arts and Design, through February 19) would have given hers a run for its money. Since the late ’90s, the virtuoso artist-designer Matthew Flower (aka Machine Dazzle) has made his way as the great couturier for the downtown club and cabaret scenes, dressing the likes of performers Justin Vivian Bond and Taylor Mac. Flower transforms the stuff of the world—bullets, cellophane, Ping-Pong balls, cassette tapes, potato-chip bags, pages from gay porn mags—into sumptuous, sculptural, logic-defying garments that look like they could have been made by Charles James if he’d costumed the Cockettes. The show gives the richness of Flower’s imagination, and his seemingly endless powers of invention, center stage at last. His greatest model is himself, for in his creations, artist and artwork become one.

Rosalía with performers and audience members, Radio City Music Hall, New York, September 19 and 20, 2022. Photo: Sasha Frere-Jones.

5
Rosalía’s Motomami tour (Radio City Music Hall) made a spectacle not only of the mesmerizing singer-songwriter, but of her devoted fans. The video screens behind her onstage were vertically oriented for maximum iPhone-friendliness and periodically projected footage broadcast from cameras brandished by her dancers. The woman sitting in front of me spent most of the show with her phone camera turned on herself, watching herself lip-sync to the songs (nearly flawlessly, it must be said). I admit that I had been momentarily mesmerized by her performance—hovering as it was somewhere between the present tense and fantasy time—when I looked up and saw onstage a group of friends who had been sitting two rows ahead of me now dancing and singing behind Rosalía herself. I’d been so distracted by the show, and by the videos of the show in the show, and by the woman recording her own show while watching the live show, that I hadn’t noticed the four of them had gone. Who was having the most fun? They all beamed, beatific from the attention they’d claimed for themselves, but only those who’d been onstage received wild applause as they strutted back down the aisle to their seats after the number was over.

The Wooster Group, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, 2022. Rehearsal view, the Performing Garage, New York, September 15, 2022. Eric Berryman. Photo: Marika Kent.

6
In oral traditions, a storyteller is given license to put something of themselves into the tale that’s passing through them. Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me (Performing Garage) is performer Eric Berryman’s interpretation of select toasts recorded for an album of the same title, released by Rounder Records in 1976. Toasts are lyrical narrative poems that Black American men—historically those of the working class—learned from, and performed for, one another. As the evening’s magnetic emcee, Berryman recited a few, sometimes ventriloquizing his own voice, mouthing into a microphone while his prerecorded self sneaked through the speakers and perforated the present tense. Toasts often spun bawdy, insurgent yarns about tricksters, pimps, and criminals, all having the last laugh. One of the best-known toasts, “Titanic,” tells the story of Shine, a fictional Black man who served on the doomed passenger liner. As he swims to safety, rich white people beg him to save them: “Shine, Shine, you save poor me, / I make you as rich as a shine can be” (to quote a version from the book of toasts that shares the same title as the LP) The show’s title is Shine’s response—sensible advice to anyone on a sinking ship.

Gisèle Vienne, Crowd, 2022. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, October 13, 2022. Photo: Maria Baranova.

7
Gisèle Vienne’s exquisite, spectral Crowd (Brooklyn Academy of Music in association with French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line Festival) seemed to thicken the theater’s air, her fifteen dancers moving in slow motion, either caught in a delirium or suspended in those moments just before a near-fatal accident when time winds down and the details of the world become unnervingly vivid. With house and techno music thumping overhead and thick brown dirt underfoot, Vienne’s characters gather for an outdoor rave, losing themselves in the music—almost. Darkness looms, blood runs. Some of them fight, others flirt. All are speechless, immersed in their own murky stories. Although the piece debuted in 2017, here in 2022 it felt like watching the living rise again.

Gisèle Vienne’s Crowd seemed to thicken the theater’s air, the dancers either caught in a delirium or suspended in those moments just before a near-fatal accident when time winds down and the details of the world become unnervingly vivid.

Ken Rus Schmoll, Four Saints in Three Acts, 2022. Performance view, Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York, September 16, 2022. David Greenspan. Photo: Steven Pisano.

8
David Greenspan’s solo performance of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts (Doxsee at Target Margin Theater) made music out of the author’s libretto with no instrument but himself. A master craftsman, Greenspan luxuriated in Stein’s voluminous language, hitting each of her syllables with lightning precision, giving voice to all the saints (there are sixty-six of them) and all the Steins, too. He became by turns Stein of the Krazy Kat comics, who impishly delights in the nerdiest wordplay (“parti-color,” “reading read read readily”), and Stein the Insufferable, who repeats and repeats and repeats herself as though we haven’t heard her already. He was Stein of the Eternal Swoon, ever singing her love for Alice B. Toklas in some covert register or other (“Saint Therese,” the name most often spoken in the text, was one of Stein’s pet names for Toklas), and he was Stonewalling Modernist Stein, the sheer textual mass of whom rebuffs those seeking absolution in “plot,” “character,” and “meaning.” (As Roland Barthes pointed out long ago, meaning makes a thing less dangerous to its beholders.) She remains our great writer of theatrical time, her feral rhythms demanding no clock save that of the performer’s mouth, so when Greenspan decided Stein’s time was up, he shut his, and she and her canon disappeared into the ether while the rest of us, left behind here in the twenty-first century, mindlessly checked our phones for missed messages.

Mette Edvardsen, No Title, 2014. Performance view, Amant, New York, April 20, 2022. Mette Edvardsen. Photo: Whitney Browne.

9
Part of the delight of a vanishing act is that it reverses a basic theatrical promise: that something of this world will materialize before the audience. Mette Edvardsen’s No Title (Compendio Series at Amant) was a now you see it, now you don’t that conjured thought-images of people and places and things—and then just as deftly took it all away. Alone on a stage that was bare except for a pair of old sneakers, Edvardsen, eyes closed, quietly began a strange soliloquy—“The beginning—is gone / the space is empty—and gone / the prompter has turned off his reading lamp—and gone”—as though she were walking us through a memory palace she’d drawn, in the spirit of Borges’s cartographer, atop the very theater in which we sat. Starting at its own ending, the piece unfolded and swallowed itself simultaneously. Gone was the simple magic word that made past tense out of the space’s present nothingness and finally—a slender ray of hope?—out of nothingness itself.

10
And then Yvonne Rainer announced that Hellzapoppin’: What about the bees? (New York Live Arts, copresented with Performa) would be her last dance. She has never been a mincer—not on her feet, and not of words—so where others expressed their doubts that this was true, I believed her, or believed at the very least that “last dance” was the driving spirit of the piece. She began the evening by screening her dynamic 2002 video After Many a Summer Dies the Swan: Hybrid, which collages footage of Mikhail Baryshnikov and other members of his White Oak Dance Project rehearsing and performing a dance by Rainer together with sentences stripped from texts by Adolf Loos, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and others. After a brief intermission began Hellzapoppin’, made in part of moves that preceded Rainer: the Lindy Hop from the titular 1941 film; the antics of Laurel and Hardy and and of the boys in Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933); and the dances of Jerome Robbins and Michel Fokine. Throughout, performer David Thomson spoke in voice-over as Rainer’s alter ego Apollo Musagetes on the subject of racism in America, quoting James Baldwin, Terrance Hayes, Tracy Morgan, and others. Rainer outed herself decades ago as a “permanent recovering racist,” which is a very white-person thing to do. And yet racism is most often spoken about by white people as though it were something outside ourselves, most of us preferring to work from the assumption that we ourselves are not racist, rather than from the knowledge that we are. Knowing this much: Were we watching homage or appropriation? Is quotation proof of wisdom or merely of erudition? What is in fact produced when people become sites, channels, or mere receptacles for the ideas of others? Presenting bodies and politics, minds and mouths in various temporalities and distances from one another, Rainer, whose raucous 1964 No Manifesto declared

No to the heroic.
No to the anti-heroic

and

No to moving or being moved,

ended these unresolved dance-thoughts—punctuated her life’s work—with a line borrowed from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

and yes I said yes I will Yes.

And yes, I was moved, and said yes to being moved, just as I had said yes to being in the audience for so many years for this artist who, finally, offered so much to say both no and yes to.

*Wedge: An Aesthetic Inquiry, Summer 1982, 26.

Jennifer Krasinski is a writer, a critic, and the digital editorial director of Artforum.